As we near the halfway point of the baseball season, several trends are becoming increasingly clear. Perhaps most significant among them is the parity within all six divisions of Major League Baseball. As of June 22, the top two teams in five out of six divisions are separated by no more than two games.
Last week, we looked at four hitting prospects whose call-up to the majors posed implications in a number of different pennant races.
Now, we turn our attention to the mound, where a quartet of young arms appear poised to make a similar impact on the season's later stages. While there are other, more "highly-touted" pitchers whose debuts could occur before season's end, many of them will be starting for teams well out of postseason contention.Mike Minor
Jacob Turner - Detroit Tigers
With the exception of potential American League Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander , the Tigers' rotation is fraught with problems. Earlier this week, reliever-turned-starter Phil Coke was sent back to the bullpen in favor of Charlie Furbush, while Brad Penny, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer have combined to post a 4.73 ERA to this point in the season. Detroit has expressed interest in acquiring another starter before the trade deadline but is unlikely to seek a front-end complement to Verlander due to a severe dearth of talent in its farm system.
A more viable option for Detroit is to promote 20 year-old phenom Jacob Turner, the 9th overall pick in the 2009 draft. In 14 starts for Double-A Erie in 2011, Turner has posted a 3.07 ERA with a 77/25 SO/BB ration in 93.2 innings. The Tigers are notorious for pushing their young starters to the big leagues (Jeremy Bonderman comes to mind, in particular) and Turner has the stuff to immediately hold his own in the big leagues. Baseball America rated him the 21 best prospect in baseball prior to the start of the season, buoyed by a 70 rated fastball on the 20-80 scouting scale. If Detroit feels he is ready, Turner may be the key addition for the Tigers' playoff push.
- Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have made a habit of churning out successful starters from their farm system, including one of this year's leading Rookie of the Year candidates, Jeremy Hellickson. He, along with David Price and James Shields, forms one of baseball's best pitching triumvirates. But to keep pace with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, it is likely that Tampa will need significant contributions from the bottom part of the rotation. Jeff Niemann has had an injury-riddled season and has struggled to a 2-4 record and 5.58 ERA. Wade Davis has produced decent numbers out of the number four spot with a 7-5 ledger and 4.32 ERA. Tampa is not normally a buyer at the deadline, and though the front office has publicly declared a willingness to increase the payroll to stay in the AL East race, the Rays are more apt to seek help from within the organization.
Enter Alex Cobb, a 23 year-old righthander drafted out of high school in Florida in the 4th round of the 2006 draft. Since joining the organization, Cobb has produced at every level, and after an outstanding beginning to the 2011 campaign at Triple-A Durham, was given a brief opportunity to showcase himself in the bigs. In five starts in the majors this season, Cobb has compiled a 3.41 ERA and a 19/12 K/BB ratio in 29 innings, including a three start stretch from June 7 to June 18 in which he allowed just 4 earned runs in 18.1 innings. He has also destroyed the Triple-A International League, posting a 1.35 ERA in 9 starts with a 56/11 SO/BB ratio in 53.1 innings pitched. Cobb was sent back to Triple-A after his last start to make room for a returning Jeff Niemann, but drew rave reviews from Rays' manager Joe Maddon. With Niemann's health issues and poor pitching thus far in the season, it won't be long until we see Cobb back in the majors.
Kyle Gibson - Minnesota Twins
The Twins' top prospect was detailed in a recent Prospect Press article, so I'll just recap the basics.A polished 6'6'' righthander out of the University of Missouri, Gibson was selected 22nd overall by the Twins in the 2009 draft. He has moved quickly through the system, beginning 2011 at Triple-A Rochester, where he has posted a 3-7 record with a 4.17 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 86.1 innings pitched.
The numbers aren't staggering, but the Twins front office believes he is major-league ready and Gibson is likely next in line for a call-up if one of the members of the big league rotation goes down with an injury. Despite a horrid start to the season, Minnesota is not yet out of contention in the mediocre AL Central, and with the team's track record of brilliant second half play, Gibson remains an intriguing addition to the big league staff in the late stages of the year.
- Atlanta Braves
The 23 year-old lefthander is not a new name to baseball fans and prospect watchers, yet he is the most intriguing name on this list. The Braves have repeatedly stated that they aren't looking to deal veteran starter Derek Lowe before the trade deadline, but given Lowe's sterling postseason track record and the desperate need for pitching among several playoff contenders, Atlanta stands to bring back a relatively valuable haul of prospects. Atlanta's rotation is arguably the best in baseball and Minor is currently the victim of a numbers game. Brandon Beachy edged him out for the 5th starter's spot in spring training and has not disappointed, posting a 3.04 ERA and awesome 66 SO in 55 innings pitched. He spent a few weeks on the DL, giving Minor a chance to start for the big league team.
Minor has been back-and-forth between Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinett this season. In six starts at the big league level, he has posted a 4.59 ERA and 26/15 SO/BB ratio. His last start, a June 21 meeting with the Toronto Blue Jays, was his best thus far, as Minor went seven strong innings, allowing one run and striking out eight. He has spent the majority of the season pitching in Triple-A, dominating International League hitters with a 2.74 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 71.2 innings pitched.
Another possible scenario is that the Braves dangle Minor at the trade deadline in hopes of bringing back another bat for its mercurial lineup. As mentioned earlier, Lowe saves his best for the playoffs and Atlanta may feel a strong desire to retain him for a possible pennant race with the Philadelphia Phillies and/or postseason play. Minor is ready for full-time duty in a major league rotation, and with the emergence of 20-year phenom Julio Teheran, Minor's teammate at Triple-A, the Braves starting staff is loaded for years ahead. Once again, Minor may be victimized by the numbers game and never throw another pitch at Turner Field.