Us prospect writers are a strange bunch. We convince ourselves that we know things others don't about guys making Major League debuts, and we smirk while Mario and Rob fumble for bits of information on the new youngsters. We follow guys though box scores, Baseball America articles and in some instances watch them live, either in person or through the MiLB.com broadcast package. Why? Because we’re geeks. Following prospects is our version of Dungeons and Dragons.
Scouting and prospecting is an inexact science. Guys are given hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars based largely on projection, and the biggest gambles are often around pitching. In order to preserve these arms, most organizations hold strict pitch counts on their young staffs, to the point that most guys are lifted around 75 pitches for entire seasons in the lower minors. I had the opportunity to watch one of the best arms in minor league baseball last season in Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez. In the 25 games he appeared in, Sanchez threw just over 90 innings and spent only half the season throwing more than four innings per appearance.
Although I try to temper my enthusiasm around pitching prospects, here I am. I am a huge fan of pitching and am always looking for the big arm with the explosive fastball and the nasty 12-6 curveball. While I know there is a good chance these guys will break my heart, I have decided to give a small portion of it to following these five guys.
1: Endrys Briceno
Briceno is a 21-year-old right-hander out of Venezuela who is currently pitching in Low-A West Michigan. At 6’5" and a hair over 170 pounds, Brecenio is still physically maturing but his arm will drop your jaw. Brecenio features a heavy, sinking fastball that routinely sits in the mid-90s but has touched 97 at times. He also features a slider and changeup that both need a touch of polish.
The downside for Briceno is his command. He is a tall, lanky kid who can easily get out-of-sorts in his delivery, which can lead to him having trouble finding the strike zone. Repeating his delivery and finding a consistent arm slot will be vital to his development and should ultimately help with the command issues that plague him and most young pitchers his age. He is still very young and with the slight build he has, one would think that he will add a few pounds to his frame and perhaps add to his arm strength.
Briceno is still a few years off and has yet to post an ERA under 5.00 since making his professional debut in 2009. The Tigers will most likely build his arm strength in the lower minors by keeping him in the starting rotation, but he may ultimately be moved to the pen.
2: Drew VerHagen
VerHagen was chosen in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of Vanderbilt and is currently in the Advanced-A Lakeland rotation. At 6’6", 230 pounds, he has a good frame and a fastball that routinely sits at 92, but can be bumped up to the mid-90s when he needs it. He has a curveball with good 12-6 bite when he gets on top of it, but has a tendency get underneath it causing him to lose some sharpness. What VerHagen is currently missing is that ever-elusive third pitch which most starters ultimately need to be successful. He is a versatile arm and has been both a starter and a reliever in his college and pro career.
VerHagen, like Brecenio, will most likely spend the 2013 season as a starter in order to get innings on his arm. He will be watched closely since he had Tommy John surgery during his prep career. He is a bit older at 23 and I would like to see him challenged with a promotion to Erie at some point this season.
Mercedes is a reliever, and while I typically don’t get excited about relievers in the minor leagues, there is something about Mercedes that I like. He is the definition of a bad-body guy and at 6’1", 270 pounds, he could draw comparisons to guys like Bartolo Colon or, dare I say it, Bruce Rondon. It is Mercedes 98-mile-per-hour fastball that excites me more than his physical physique, one that explodes when he elevates it.
Mercedes will never be major-league starter. On top of his fastball, he has a slider (a fringy pitch at best) and struggles with command. His arm tends to get out in front of his body with a fast delivery which causes him to struggle throwing strikes. Baseball America has said that Mercedes could turn into a dominant set-up man and the possibility of two bad-body guys coming out of the pen to close things out for the Tigers someday excites me for some reason. Maybe because I’m a fat guy myself.
Lobstein has probably gotten more run and may be more familiar to Tiger fans than the previously mentioned guys. He was picked up from Tampa Bay in the Rule 5 draft and when it was determined that he would not be part of the 2013 plans in Detroit, the Tigers thought enough of him to trade a valued catching prospect, Curt Casali, to keep him.
Lobstein more than likely profiles as a four or a five starter, but has good mechanics and three average pitches that he moves around and locates well for strikes. He is known as a guy that will eat a lot of innings, and while he most likely will not win you 20 games, he could be someone that wins 10-12 games per year -- not bad for a back of the rotation guy. Lobstein knows how to pitch and while he won’t like the radar guns up, he will get guys out.
Lobstein is currently throwing in Double-A Erie, but could see some time in Toledo at some point this year and may also get a taste of big league life in Detroit in September.
5: Montreal Robertson
Robertson is getting his first taste of full-season ball as a front-line starter for Low-A West Michigan. He has a solid build at 6’4", 220 pounds, and a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. Like most guys his age, he is in love with his fastball and he can cut it as well as sink it at times. The development of his secondary pitches will be key.
Robertson has held opponents to a .210 average in his 16 2/3 innings of work so far this season and has worked to the tune of a 2.16 ERA. Depending on the development of his secondary pitches, Robertson could become either a middle-of-the-rotation starter or a late-inning reliever with his fastball/slider arsenal. He has a very high upside, but will have to work hard to achieve it -- something that Robertson has a reputation for doing.
You will notice that in this list, I purposely left guys off. Names like Bruce Rondon, Casey Crosby, and Adam Wilk are somewhat-known commodities who Tigers fans have at least had a glimpse. Like most prospect guys, it’s typically the lower-level guys that excite me. The reason for that is lower-level guys typically are so raw but show glimpses of greatness and there is less known about them. They also tend to be the higher-risk guys and can break your heart just as easily as they can melt it. I’ll still keep looking for the next great thing because, hey, I’m a prospect guy, and that is what I like to do.