Almost done, I promise. By the time this ends, it will probably be September. Oh well.
6. Corey Knebel
I typically don't like placing relievers this high on the list -- and still don't even feel comfortable about this ranking -- but Knebel is one of the best pure relief prospects in the minors and looks to be on track to crack the bullpen this year. Yeah, I know, we have seen this before with Chance Ruffin, Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth, and a host of others, but hey: fool me once, shame on me, fool me 14 times, and I'll still rank the guy number 6. What do I know?
Knebel features a 92-97 mile-per-hour fastball, with plenty of tilt and some arm side wiggle. It has very good life, and doesn't often get squared. He's not afraid to challenge, and when he's right, can spot this pitch to all four quadrants of the zone. His fastball command, while not perfect, is definitely advanced for a guy his age, and if we're being really honest here, would probably be second best on the Tigers right now to Joe Nathan. He has a hard breaking ball in the low 80s with bite and two plane movement. I don't really care what you call it: a slider, a slurve, a curve, a gyroball, whatever. All I know is that this pitch is a true plus pitch, with the potential to wreak havoc on major league hitters. He can also fade a change up if he wants to, but it's more of a show-me pitch at this point, although I've seen him toss it for strikes. Here is a link to some of my West Michigan scouting notes from last year.
When all is said and done, Knebel should be a late innings arm for the Tigers as soon as next season. I don't really worry about the off-the-field stuff. Every time he goes out on the mound, he has an 'eff you' mentality, is a little excitable and quirky, but isn't afraid. I'm still not a fan of taking a pen arm this high in the draft, especially with the Tigers' pedigree, but it seems like Knebel is a bit different.
5. Jon Crawford
Yes, yes, I know, this is a low ranking for Crawford, comparatively. However, I have some areas of concern with the Tigers' first round pick from the '13 draft. First off, Florida pitchers scare me in general. They are often overused in college, and while they are not quite in the 'Rice pitcher' or 'Stanford hitter' territory, they are damn close. More than that, however, I just don't like Crawford's mechanical profile. He has a bit of an arm wrap, a shorter stride, and most of his profile depends on generating huge torque on the slider.
In years past, Crawford is known to have had a 93-96 mile-per-hour fastball, sometimes touching 97 or 98. However, that's not the range he has been in as a Tiger, working more 91-94. While that is still good, it is not an overpowering pitch at that velocity. Unless he gets those couple ticks back, the fastball is a 55-60 grade pitch instead of a plus-plus one. His command of the pitch can be touch and go. In some starts, it is excellent. In others, not so much. If he can corral the command of the fastball, it will help it play up a tick, but it is a whole lot different throwing 92 miles per hour with fringe command than 95-96 miles per hour. The slider is legit, no doubt. It has filthy two plane break, and he snaps it off with heavy torque and spin. Whether Crawford is a starter or reliever, this will be his go-to pitch, and was one of the best breaking balls in last year's draft class. The change up is still a work in progress, and it is absolutely an area of interest for the Tigers going forward. He needs to throw that pitch with more conviction -- as I don't believe the overall arsenal is Chris Archer or Tyson Ross quality -- in order to succeed as a starter in the major leagues with only two pitches. There is a definite possibility that Crawford ends up in the pen.
Crawford has a smaller build for a starter, which is abnormal for the Tigers' typical wants and needs. Essentially, Crawford's overall success is going to come down to a few things, including mechanical adjustments, ability to hold and pitch effectively with lesser velocity (or get his old velocity back), and the change up progress. I was a bit surprised to see Crawford sent to West Michigan. While I read a little bit into it, he should see some time with Lakeland this year. I will be able to catch quite a few of his starts in person or on milb.tv, so it will be interesting to see how he progresses in 2014.
4. Endrys Briceno
There is no doubt in my mind that Crawford is a better pitcher right now than Briceno. Crawford probably has a higher floor as well. However, Briceno's ceiling is certainly higher, as he could be an innings-eating number three starter at the major league level with a few adjustments and overall progression. Here is my short write up upon seeing him in Florida:
Endrys Briceno: He was really, really impressive. I'm going to rank him #4 in the system and have no regrets. Arm action is the best in the system, and some of the best I've seen. His FB was 92-94 T 95, but it's definitely not straight. The change up is solid average right now, and flashes plus. He's got an idea of what he's doing on the mound, and throws the change up in hitters counts, too. I've seen him a few times, and the breaking ball was always lagging. However, the other day, it was fringe average, and I was encouraged. He threw double digit breakers over the course of 4 innings, and that's the most I've ever seen him throw. If he can get that pitch up to solid average, or even just fringe average, you've really got something here. He had some trouble generating swings and misses last year int he minors, but I counted damn near 10 the other day, coming on all three pitches. I know he's a bit older, but the body and arsenal are improving, and he's taken another step forward from last year.
This is a video of him throwing as well:
As you can see, the arm is quick, whippy, and loose, and it looks like he's playing catch. However, it's catch at 95 miles per hour. One scout compared his arm action to that of Neftali Feliz.
At this point in his career, Briceno struggles to miss bats frequently in games, and overall, the results aren't great. I get that he's a bit older for a raw prospect like this (22 year old season), but please be patient. Remember, he's essentially the same age as all of the college juniors drafted last season, and is actually younger than Jon Crawford and Corey Knebel. There is still plenty of time for development, and I don't expect an ETA until 2017+ anyway.
While I do believe Endrys could probably add 20-25 more pounds (preferably in his legs), and another tick on the FB, plenty of velocity comes from his whippiness and flexibility. He probably weighs 180 pounds soaking wet, but I don't want to see him add weight just to add it, something around 200-205 ish would probably be his comfort zone. His fastball has excellent life at present, although the FB command leaves a bit to be desired. He can sometimes reach back for extra velocity, although it's difficult to tell because the arm swing is so pure. Briceno needs to attack hitters more often, and be able to spot fastballs more accurately to be effective. In terms of pitching aptitude, he doesn't quite have the feel that Jake Thompson or Drew Verhagen have in terms of sequencing, but I'd like to see what would happen if he had an older catcher guiding him through his outings.
The change up is his go-to off speed offering at present, and it's well ahead of the curveball right now. It has excellent arm speed, some arm side fade, and the velocity is a nice separation from the fastball, typically clocking in the low 80's. He can throw it for a strike, too, and if used effectively, could give both right and left handed hitters fits. The curveball is below average at this point, but from what I saw a few weeks ago, it's improving. Last year, he hardly ever threw it in games, but he spun off quite a few on the backfields. Briceno's issue is generating spin, but to be fair, I'm a change-up whore, and I do believe the CB can manifest itself around the fringe-average level going forward.
Briceno offers a very interesting package, and with his raw tools, the Tigers could have something special. If you want to pay attention to numbers only, you're probably going to miss one of the most interesting prospects in the system. Be patient with a case like this, as it's still a ways away. Remember, it's not the results, but the process in obtaining the results.
3. Jake Thompson
Man oh man, I hemmed and hawed about this for the last two months, and after seeing Thompson throw twice, and Ray throw on milb.tv once, I still was having trouble making up my mind. It's REALLY close, and as far as tiers go, here's how I'd go:
Briceno, Crawford, Knebel, McCann, Suarez
I wrote up Thompson at Baseball Prospectus, and here's what I said:
RHP Jake Thompson: Physically mature build for a 20-year-old. The delivery has some deception, and there were quite a few uncomfortable at-bats. The fastball has a bit of life, but he has a lot of arm-side run on the two seamer at 88-91. He also throws a four-seamer that's in the 90-92 range, but it can get a bit flat. Thompson throws two breaking balls, one I'd classify as a curve at 74/75, and a slider at 79-81. He can throw either one for a strike or as a chase pitch and has extremely good command of each. I'd grade both breakers as plus, and the slider has some plus-plus potential. He generates spin really well.
In the two outings I saw, spanning nine innings, Thompson used the changeup much more frequently and threw it with much more conviction. It has some good downward action along with velocity separation, and even generated some swings and misses. He's got an extremely high IQ on the mound, and has a really good idea of how to sequence and set up hitters. He throws plenty of off-speed pitches, even his changeup in fastball counts, and keeps hitters off balance. He's wise beyond his years and has excellent poise.
However, at around the 50-60 pitch mark in each of the two outings Thompson started to tire a bit. He's physically in good shape, but the arm slowed down a tick, and the fastball dropped to 87-89 and tended to flatten out. He can still pitch and get by at that speed, as the breaking balls each still play, but the fastballs were getting barreled, whereas in the first couple innings of each start he barely allowed balls out of the infield. This might be something to monitor going forward. I wouldn't get too concerned, as it's only his second full year of pro ball. If he can hold velocity, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in the top 101 at some point.
That's essentially the gist of it. I've given Thompson an Erik Johnson comp, although it's not perfect. I also spoke to a scout at length about Thompson, and although he actually really liked him, and let me know that Thompson is in fact ahead of Erik Johnson at this stage in their respective careers, yet Jake has some red flags in his delivery. This is what a scout told me:
Thompson's delivery worries me. Look at the arm when he lands. The stiff front leg doesn't let him throw through and it puts so much pressure on the elbow. He needs to clean that action up. That kind of tilt always worries me, have to have excellent arm action to pull it off. It could be a really easy fix, just needs to add bend in his front leg.
We had a longer discussion centering around Thompson, but essentially, he's an advanced pitching prospect for a 20 year old, and even though a lot of his overall success hinges on torquing both the slider and curveball, if he can clean his delivery up jsut a tad, his body and arm should be able to handle the stress put upon it. At the very least, he's a back inning reliever with two plus breakers if he does get hurt. His ceiling is a middle-back of the rotation starter with the ability to miss some bats. The change up would really help round out his four pitch arsenal, and with a solid command/control profile, Thompson should do extremely well at Lakeland this season, and be on the top 100 prospect map for 2015.
Here is a video of Thompson in Florida. You can see ALL of my videos here and follow me on twitter@jgoro8.