Baseball prospects are a volatile bunch. Their production can vary wildly from year to year, and statistics alone cannot tell us nearly as much as what they do for players at the major league level. If a big league pitcher has an ERA of 5.00, he did not have a good season. If a minor league pitcher has an ERA of 5.00, there are a number of different questions that need to be asked before we pass judgment on his performance. Was he pitching at an appropriate level? Did the organization ask him to work on a specific pitch? Was he injured? Did he change his delivery? These are just a few of the things that minor league players go through -- not to mention the rigors of bus travel -- in hopes of achieving their lifelong dream of pitching in the major leagues.
Buck Farmer had that dream come true in 2014. He started the year at Single-A West Michigan, but the right combination of production and opportunity led him from Comstock Park to downtown Detroit, where his parents cheered wildly as their son started a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 13th, 2014. That was just the first of hopefully many MLB starts for Farmer, but as someone who accomplished the biggest hurdle in prospect-dom -- achieving success at the major league level -- Farmer instantly shot himself into the upper echelon of Tigers prospects in 2015.
A Georgia Tech product, George Runie Farmer was selected by the Tigers in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. A three year starter for the Yellow Jackets, Farmer was a three-time all-ACC performer. He was a semifinalist for the ACC Pitcher of the Year award during his senior season. He continued his success after being drafted, allowing a 3.09 ERA and compiling a 4.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings for the Connecticut Tigers.
The Crawfish Boxes profiled Farmer prior to the 2013 draft, and the description of his arsenal still holds true after a couple of seasons of professional ball.
What you see is what you get. He looks exactly like a Buck Farmer should. At 6'3", 240, he has a thick lower body, which helps him maintain his velocity deep into starts. That, along with his propensity to attack the strikezone fit the classic innings-eater profile.
His repertoire consists of a minimal-movement fastball -- which sits in the low 90s and tops out around 95 -- an above average change-up (plus potential) and a fringe slider-curve combo. When he's on, he's pounding the strikezone and mixing all his pitches, evidenced by his best start this season, when he struck out 14 batters, on only 97 pitches!
In 2014, Farmer dominated the Midwest League. He made 16 starts for Single-A West Michigan, Farmer allowed a 2.60 ERA and 2.78 FIP, logged 103 2/3 innings, and struck out nearly five batters for every walk. Then the whirlwind began. He moved up to Double-A Erie after the All-Star break and made two solid starts for the SeaWolves. Then he was called up to make his MLB debut for the Tigers. An otherwise solid outing was spoiled by a home run by Pittsburgh's Travis Snider, but the Tigers eventually won the game. After that, Farmer was sent down to Toledo where he allowed eight runs (seven earned) in the first inning of his next outing. He was recalled to Detroit, where he only recorded five outs in another blowout loss. Then he went back to Toledo, where he allowed one run in seven innings.
That was August. One could empathize with Farmer if he said he were exhausted, but he closed out the season with a couple of solid relief outings. With questions surrounding the back of the rotation, Farmer could see more time at the MLB level in 2015.
Farmer used three pitches in his four MLB outings last season, and all three project to be major league average or better. Farmer's off-speed pitches were of particular interest to Jordan last year when he ranked Farmer as the #29 prospect in the organization.
The curveball is a bit slow at 72-75 miles per hour, but features good bite, and tight spin when he snaps a good one off. Farmer drops down a bit in his delivery, which can prohibit his fingers from getting on top of the pitch, and it can come out of the side of his hand. With more repetition and work, the curveball should be a tick above average, or even a plus pitch.
Farmer's changeup is advanced for a right-handed pitcher at this point as well. He has the ability to throw it for a strike, even as the first pitch in a sequence. It's not a swing-and-miss pitch necessarily, even though it possesses good movement, but comes out of the same arm slot as his other pitches, and is about 10 miles per hour slower. It's pretty close to a major league average pitch at this point, and should also get better with more reps.
There are conflicting reports on what the distinction is between Farmer's slider and curveball are -- it's more of a slurve, if we're being technical -- but it has decent two-plane movement. He rarely used it against left-handed hitters in 2014, relying instead on a fastball-changeup combination. He showed the ability to get lefties to swing and miss on the change (in a very limited sample), and it will be a crucial pitch for him if he is to remain a big league starter.
Farmer's pitching delivery is a double-edged sword. He throws from a lower arm slot than many right-handed starters. His three-quarter arm slot is similar to Max Scherzer's, though their respective deliveries are quite different mechanically. The plus to Farmer's lower arm slot is that it makes the ball very difficult for right-handed hitters to pick up. If Farmer can locate his pitches, he will be very tough on righties. He held them to a .234 average and .626 OPS at all levels last season, and totaled 91 strikeouts to 13 walks.
The downside to Farmer's delivery is that it makes it more difficult to establish pitch command. He has done a good job of limiting walks during his professional career, but this is primarily due to his stuff. As a college pitcher working in the low minors, Farmer has the raw stuff to overpower hitters without being too precise in the strike zone. That won't fly in the majors. Farmer needs to locate his pitches -- particularly the fastball -- better within the strike zone* in order to get more experienced hitters out.
Jordan touched on how Farmer's delivery affects his fastball movement in last year's rankings.
While he keeps the fastball down really well, his delivery inhibits him from generating downward plane, and therefore, he has trouble sinking the fastball. He gets his hands into a solid position at the top of his delivery, but immediately breaks them and falls downward toward the third base dugout. I would like to see him use some finger pressure in order to manipulate the fastball, running it inside to right-handed batters. Sometimes, he has the propensity to crouch into a question mark on the rubber, and while his fastball control is above average, it can cause him to lose command on both sides of the plate.
Of his three pitches, Farmer's breaking ball is the one that evaluators are most worried about. As mentioned, it gets a bit slurvy at times, making it easy for hitters to identify. Farmer will need to improve his consistency with the pitch, and could also benefit from throwing it against left-handers. He won't improve upon last season's .740 OPS against lefties -- a lot of that success was against Single A hitters, remember -- but he can limit regression by adding the slider into the mix.
*This is the distinction between control and command. Farmer has good control right now and won't walk many guys, but his command -- the ability to locate the ball within the strike zone -- is lacking.
Video via Jordan Gorosh and MLB Farm
Projected team: Toledo Mud Hens
Normally, a pitcher who dominates the Midwest League like Farmer did in 2014 would be moved up a level the following season. Had Farmer's season ended prior to August 1st, he may have skipped Advanced-A Lakeland due to his age and excellent peripheral numbers. His meteoric rise through the system changes things. In all likelihood, Farmer will start the season at Triple A and traipse between Toledo and Detroit for most of the season. He will be one of the first pitchers called up for a spot start, and should have a decent shot at making the rotation full-time in 2016. With the highest upside of all the Tigers' starters currently in the high minors -- and an equally high floor at this point -- Farmer has a good chance of sticking in an MLB rotation for the foreseeable future.
New addition: Javier Betancourt, second baseman
Betancourt is what many would call a "gamer." He doesn't have superstar potential, but gets the most out of his physical tools with great instincts and a high baseball IQ. He doesn't have the arm to play shortstop or the bat to play third base, but has a good feel for the strike zone and doesn't strike out often. He hit .269 at Single-A West Michigan last season, but slugged just .344. However, as a 19 year old, that's fairly impressive. His upside is limited, and it may be another year or two until we see what exactly the Tigers have in Betancourt.