The Next Next Big Things: Pitcher Edition
As dynasty owners, we treat Top 100 lists as gospel. Every year, we pour over these lists and try to make roster moves accordingly. And every year, whether it is through call-ups or just erosion of skills, these lists change dramatically. To try to stay ahead of the curve, and more importantly ahead of your fellow owners, it’s important to try and project who might be the next to see their stock rise as a prospect. It’s always fun to have a farm system chock full of Top 100 guys. It’s even more fun to snag these prospects before they break out, ensuring bargain basement prices.
Yohander Mendez, LHP, Texas
It must be nice to be able to trade away Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate and still be able to feel good about your future pitching. For the Rangers, Mendez allows just that. Signed as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in 2012, Mendez has already shown skills that make his $1.5 million signing bonus look like a flat-out steal. While the lefty’s combo of high strikeouts and low walks has been on display since he signed (and probably before then, I’d imagine, but I can’t prove it), the team handled Mendez with kid gloves, not allowing more than 46 innings until his 2015 run in the Sally League.
In 2015, Mendez started to creep onto the radar as a prospect to watch with a stellar performance in Level A ball. In 66 1/3 innings, he fanned 74 batters, while issuing only 15 free passes. The Rangers continued to heavily monitor his innings, however, as Mendez only made eight starts in his 21 appearances. Those eight starts were enough to create some buzz for him, and he entered the 2016 season as the eighth best prospect in the Rangers’ system, according to Baseball Prospectus.
Thus far in 2016, Mendez has cemented himself as one of the best arms not only in the Rangers’ organization, but also in the entire minor leagues. The 21-year-old started his campaign by dominating in High A, striking out 45 batters in 33 innings. He also displayed a sparkling 2.45 ERA and 0.970 WHIP. Mendez received a promotion to Double A Frisco, and the only thing that changed was his uniform. Against tougher competition he tossed 46.2 innings, striking out 46 hitters to 14 walks. Over his 10 starts he gave up 16 runs en route to a 3.09 ERA and 1.136 WHIP.
Mendez got the call to Triple A Round Rock in early August, and thus far his stint has been… interesting. It hasn’t been off the charts amazing and it hasn’t been alarmingly bad, it has just been, well, interesting. In 19.1 innings, the strikeouts have been slightly down (17 or 7.9 per nine innings). The walks have been drastically up (12 or 5.6 per nine innings). The funny thing is that it hasn’t hurt Mendez at all because, um, he still has yet to give up a run. That’s right. Zero runs in almost 20 innings. His ERA is 0.00. His left on base rate is 100 percent. Using whichever metric you prefer, Mendez is more than holding his own and in the vaunted, hitter friendly PCL no less. Sure the walks are troubling, but he has not had issues with free passes at any other stop in his career, so history says he should get the issue sorted out. Yes, he is going to give up a run at some point, but he’s still really good.
If Mendez can maintain his upward trajectory, he will be a force to be reckoned with. He started the season outside of nearly all Top 100 lists, a fact that is quickly being rectified with some midseason updates (MLB: #63, Baseball Prospectus: #47). However he is still off of the grid enough (Baseball America: not ranked) that you could probably acquire him at a discounted rate. The price likely won’t stay low for long, though.
Luke Weaver, RHP, St. Louis
In recent years, the Cardinals seem to have a knack for drafting pitchers in the late first round that provide quick dividends. Add 2014 27th overall pick Luke Weaver to the likes of Michael Wacha (2012 draft) and Marco Gonzales (2013 draft), in addition to fellow prospect Jack Flaherty (2014, 34th overall selection) as prospects that don’t need to spend a long time marinating before showcasing their skills in the big leagues. I guess it’s fair to say the Cardinals have the late first round figured out at any position (Stephen Piscotty 2012, Kolten Wong 2011), but that’s likely #CardinalsDevilMagic at work, and a whole other column all together. Anyway, LUKE WEAVER.
Weaver’s first full season as a pro came in 2015, as he tossed 105.1 innings for High-A Palm Beach (he also threw 9.1 innings in 2014, subsequent to being drafted). He perhaps gave up a few too many hits, nearly one per inning, but the hit-itis was mitigated by a minuscule walk rate of 1.3 per nine innings. By never walking batters, Weaver managed to maintain a 1.62 ERA and an even more impressive 1.111 WHIP. He struck out 7.5 batters per nine innings, a number that won’t blow any minds, but can still translate into being a serviceable starter.
Weaver’s intriguing 2015 has been followed by an absolute breakout 2016. Starting the season in Double A Springfield, the right-hander turned heads immediately, demanding the industry to take notice. In 77 innings, Weaver paired a 1.40 ERA with a dainty 0.948 WHIP while increasing his strikeout rate to 10.3 per nine innings. His ratio of 8.8 strikeouts to every walk is simply Kershawian (well, career Kershaw, 2016 Kershaw owns a strikeout to walk ratio of 16.11, which is, um, other-worldly). Weaver’s Double A domination earned him a promotion to Triple-A Memphis, where he spent one start before being called up to St. Louis.
Weaver’s pro debut wasn’t anything to write home about (other than being a MLB debut, which in itself is pretty awesome). He had the unenviable task of making his first big league start at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. Weaver struggled a bit, giving up two earned runs in four innings of work, while walking three and striking out three. He sat in the mid 90’s with his fastball and topped out at nearly 98 mph, getting 7.84 percent whiffs, a number that would be above league average in a full season.
Weaver’s stock skyrocketed after his amazing Double-A performance, and if he maintains rookie eligibility he will be on every Top 100 list come winter. It’s possible that his debut with the Cardinals has tempered expectations in dynasty leagues. Judging Weaver’s potential based on his first start is definitely ridiculous, however if a nervous owner is willing to part with him, now is probably the time to make the move, before he inevitably rights the ship.
Thomas Szapucki, LHP, New York Mets
It’s about time the Mets finally got some pitching in their organization. Szapucki was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and has shown intriguing skills since being selected. Thus far he has been awesome in his first full season as a pro. As 20-year-old in Rookie League, the lefty tossed 29 innings and surrendered only two runs (both solo homers). If stingy run prevention doesn’t tickle your fancy, Szapucki also fanned 14.6 batters per nine innings, while only giving up nine walks. To say his career is off to a promising start probably doesn’t even sell it quite enough.
Szapucki earned a promotion on July 24th to Low-A Brooklyn and has continued his dominance. In 23 innings thus far, he has an ERA of 2.35 to go along with a 0.913 WHIP. He is striking out hitters at an even higher rate, averaging 15.3 K’s per nine innings, a number that is, um, really, really good for a starting pitcher (and I guess for relievers for that matter). Szapucki has given up 11 free passes in his Low A stint to this point, a number that isn’t great, but, as with all of the other stats, is part of a relatively small sample. If he can shave a few walks off his rates as he progresses through the Mets’ system, look out.
Of the pitchers mentioned on this list, Szapucki is probably the one that is most under the radar. After being drafted out of high school just last year, he hasn’t had the time to consistently produce enough to garner as much mainstream buzz as many other prospects. However with the numbers that Szapucki has been producing in his 2016 campaign, he’s not going to stay under the radar for long. Now could be the time to add him to your minor league roster, as his value will likely only get higher if he can continue his success while rising in the Mets’ organization.
Follow Mark Barry on Twitter @hoodieandtie