Those who follow my work know that I concentrate on prospects. To me, watching prospects develop physically, emotionally and from a talent perspective is an exciting and rewarding venture. I get to see players from early minor league days to their appearances in the Arizona Fall League, in minor league All Star Games, in the MLB All Star Futures Game and then at the major-league level.
I remember seeing Sammy Sosa when he was thin. I remember sitting behind the plate watching a guy named Didi Gregorius in the Reds minor league camp. He was picking up everything within his area code and throwing bee bees to first base with a cannon of an arm. I was there when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper showed up in the Arizona Fall League and looked totally lost. Neither performed well. The same thing happened to Buster Posey. Friends asked me why these guys were so highly rated?
Minor League Baseball is special. If you have a chance, you should head to a minor league game this coming week before the season is over. If not now, try to catch a minor league game next season. There is an innocence and purity about the entire environment. I’ll write about that topic soon in this space.
Today I want to concentrate on pitchers I have seen that really make me sit up in my seat. These are young prospect pitchers I have scouted in either the Fall League or several All-Star Games.
These pitchers are so good they just put a smile on my face. Their job is simple. Keep your team in the game long enough to give them a chance to win. It’s that simple. Just give your team a chance to win. Simple? No, not really. Not with the size, strength, speed and talent of today’s offensive players.
In this space in the past, I have shared some brief thoughts about the White Sox Michael Kopech, the Indians Tristan McKenzie and the Rays Blake Honeywell. Now it’s time for me to discuss three other budding pitching stars that need a bit more pollination before they can be plucked from the prospect vines.
Here are some of tomorrow’s pitching stars I want to see over and over again.
AJ PUK-OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Puk is a mere 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. I stood next to him in the USA Team’s locker room at the Sirius/XM Futures Game and I felt I was talking to Paul Bunyan. But man, can the guy pitch.
Imagine being Jose Altuve at 5-foot-6 (and that may be a half-inch to an inch generous) and standing at the plate to face Mr. Puk? I think I would be terrified if I were Altuve.
Puk is even more intimidating because he has grown his hair from his usual buzz cut to the long locks look of Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard. So the long arms, the long legs and the curly locks are coming at the hitter in a flash.
What if his 98 miles per hour fastball gets away from him? Are you kidding me, a guy that big throwing 98 with ease? And he can bring it to 100 miles per hour if needed.
But not to worry. Puk can control his pitches. He can command his fastball and all the other pitches in his arsenal. But what makes Puk so special is his combination of the fastball and then an 89 miles per hour changeup. From 98 to 89. That’s scary business. He keeps hitters off balance and changes their eye level. Oh, and he also has a very, very crisp slider that he throws at 84 miles per hour.
In fact, Puk throws his fastball/slider combination more often than the fastball/changeup. But make no mistake; he can bring any pitch at any count.
Puk was taken by the Athletics in the 1st round of the 2016 First-Year Player Draft. He was the 6th player taken overall.
As I write this, Puk has thrown 145 minor-league innings. At the age of 22, he is already at Double-A Midland in the Texas League. He is finding the better hitters a bit of a challenge, but he’ll be just fine. He has walked four hitters per nine innings so far in his first 51 1/3 innings at Midland. He has struck out 11.9 per nine innings. In his entire career so far, Puk has yielded three home runs. Not too shabby.
Oakland has a history of drafting well and then moving players in trades just when they are ready to explode to their potential. I don’t think that’ll happen to Puk. He’s too good.
Puk can be used as a power starter or as a back-end of the bullpen closer. For me, using him in the bullpen in his first year would be very tempting.
Puk helped his University of Florida Gators team to the 2015 College World Series.
ALEX REYES-ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
As I have mentioned, the Arizona Fall League is a showcase for tremendous players and pitchers on the cusp of major-league life. Most are within a year or two of making their mark at the big league level.
When I saw 6-foot-3, 173 pounds right-hander Alex Reyes pitch in 2015 his stuff was electric. Even though he was facing good hitters from all other organizations, Reyes was overwhelming. He dominated. He was throwing his four-seam fastball between 96-98 miles per hour consistently. And the pitched moved. He also threw a two-seam sinking fastball at a tick below in velocity.
What made Reyes so good was a complete repertoire that he could throw for strikes. He showed an excellent changeup, slider and curveball throughout his time in Arizona.
For Reyes, his live arm meant that everything worked off his fastballs. Then he would throw his changeup and totally fool the hitter. Lots of guys looked awkward trying to barrel his secondary pitches.
But in February 2017, Reyes was diagnosed with a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He had Tommy John surgery in the middle of February. Now time will tell how he returns to the mound.
Reyes had tested positive for using marijuana in 2015 while pitching in the Cardinals minor league organization. He was suspended for 50 games. The suspension included part of his Arizona Fall League season and the beginning of the 2016 season.
Even though he had pitched only 334 minor league innings, the Cardinals promoted Reyes to the major-league club in 2016. In his five starts, he compiled a record of 4-1 and a 1.57 ERA. His WHIP was 1.27. He yielded only 33 hits in 46 innings. But he walked 23 batters, an issue that he will have to harness once he returns to the mound healthy and able to pitch.
A healthy Alex Reyes will do wonders for the pitching staff of the St. Louis Cardinals. Watch him and watch righty Luke Weaver, another Fall League veteran and a pitcher I really, really like. If those two are healthy heading to 2018, the Cardinals will have two very good right-handed pitchers for their rotation for years to come. Both need to sharpen their fastball command, but both have huge upside.
DYLAN CEASE-CHICAGO WHITE SOX
I understand why the Chicago Cubs wanted left-handed pitcher Jose Quintana from the White Sox. The Cubs were at least one pitcher short as the non-waiver required deadline approached. They had a chance to add a quality lefty to their rotation. In addition, Quintana had years of team control left on his contract, not just months like Yu Darvish who went to the Dodgers. Quintana was an important acquisition for the World Champion Cubs. But did they have to give up the keys to the prospect vault to get him?
In exchange for Quintana, the White Sox received outfielder Eloy Jimenez, in my opinion one of the most dangerous prospect hitters in the game today. Big and strong, Jimenez is going to be a force on the South Side of Chicago sooner than later.
But the Cubs also included right-handed pitcher Dylan Cease, first baseman Matt Rose and infielder-outfielder Bryant Flete to the White Sox in the same deal. In my observations, the Cubs will regret watching Cease walk out their door. It was a fantastic haul for the very effective and savvy White Sox front office.
Dylan Cease has a power arm packed in a 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame. His fastball sits between 92-97 miles per hour. But if that isn’t enough, he throws his wicked power curveball at any count and with great confidence. He brings the pitch ten miles per hour slower, at 86-87 miles per hour. His curveball is a terrific secondary pitch that has hitters bailing and bending out of the way.
Cease also alters the balance of the hitter and changes his eye level with a very solid changeup.
I view Dylan Cease as a closer. He has been used primarily as a starter in his career, but the White Sox are simply loaded with great arms destined to start for them in the future. Pitchers like Michael Kopech, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning, among others are waiting their turn to fire up the baseball in Chicago.
Cease could be the perfect guy to shut down the game. He is poised, he is confident and he has the right velocity and secondary pitches to close out a game.
Dylan Cease is currently pitching at Class-A Kannapolis in the White Sox farm system. He has started seven games and he has a record of 0-6. His ERA is 4.55 and his Whip is 1.44. Those clearly aren’t great numbers. He’s walking too many hitters and he isn’t doing well in the South Atlantic League.
The problem? I really believe he’s pitching in the wrong role. If the White Sox want to maximize Cease’s talent, he should be in the bullpen for short stints.
I really believe in Dylan Cease. Only 21, he has time to work on his command and control and grow with the organization.
In a few years I may be proven wrong. Perhaps Dylan Cease isn’t the bullpen pitcher I envision. But we won’t know for at least three more years.
The brawl this week between the Yankees and Tigers was sickening. Fans of both teams have their opinions on who is to blame. Both teams share the shame.
Here’s my bottom line: There is no room in the game for throwing at a hitter or fighting with an opponent. I have no suggestions to stop either practice. How does one measure the intent of a pitcher? Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, the game does not need the literal and figurative “black eyes” caused by immature behavior in the heat of a baseball game. Cooler minds have to sit down and come up with a meaningful, credible solution to a serious issue.
Players Weekend was fun for both the players and their fans. Players wore their nicknames on their jerseys and wrote a tribute message on a patch on their uniform sleeves. The idea was designed to spark some interest in the dog days of summer.
More than the nicknames, I really liked the color combinations on some of the uniforms. Some were bright and colorful like the Marlins and the Giants. Others were mundane and unimaginative like the Diamondbacks. The idea was good.
Have you ever wanted to see 1950’s cars in all their splendor parade up and down tree-lined streets as if they were in a fashion show for cars? Come with me to Cuba January 19-26, 2018. We will sip rum, smoke cigars and soak in Cuban baseball and culture for a week at first-rate waterfront hotels on the beautiful island of Cuba.
October 1, 2017 is the deadline to express interest in attending.You can get details on the trip, including pricing by emailing me at BPleskoff@aol.com.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff