For many years, the Minnesota Twins were unique in the way they scouted and developed pitchers. As radar guns increased in importance, the Twins kept a relatively heavy focus on pitchability. That led to the team acquiring eventual Major Leaguers like Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and Glenn Perkins.
The Twins have shed that reputation in recent years, instead targeting raw fireballers like Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Jose Berrios and Kohl Stewart and trusting their Minor League staff to shape those balls of clay into MLB weapons.
Velocity obviously has its advantages. Chief among them is that velocity trends pretty closely with strikeouts -- throw harder, miss more bats.
Which brings us to Stephen Gonsalves and Felix Jorge. Both are pitching for Class A Cedar Rapids this year. Both are striking out a ton of hitters -- Gonsalves has 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings, while Jorge has a 10.2 rate. Gonsalves has a 1.41 ERA; Jorge's is 2.10. Combined, they've allowed three home runs in 62 innings. Simply put, both have dominated.
And both have done it with pitching styles that are much more Scott Baker than Alex Meyer. That's not to say Minnesota is reverting to old techniques. Rather, the team has a bit more balance on the farm. Even if Gonsalves and Jorge don't light up the radar gun, though, they're rightly now among the Twins' most highly regarded pitching prospects. To show you why, let's take a closer look at each.
Stephen Gonsalves, LHP
Gonsalves is a 2013 fourth-rounder who currently ranks 11th in the Twins' farm system, per MLB.com. The left-hander lacks overpowering stuff, per Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla, but he's thrived thanks to advanced command of his 90-92 mph fastball -- Bonilla said he's also sprinkled in a couple 93s this year -- and a solid-average changeup he can throw in any count.
The 6-foot-5 southpaw uses his long, lanky frame to create angle and deception. As he delivers, Gonsalves points his front side toward the first-base dugout and strides toward the left-handed batter's box, creating a release point that's behind left-handed hitters. The angle hinders same-side hitters' ability to see the ball, and then he neutralizes right-handers with the changeup.
"He can command both sides of the plate," Bonilla said. "His fastball has got a little run to it and has good angle. The kid is 6-foot-5 and tall, long, throws downhill well. He stays tall on his back side and gets good angle. It gets on top of you. Sometimes, he'll throw it 88, 89 and it'll go by guys. They don't have the time to react."
The fastball-change combo is good enough on its own to dominate in the Midwest League but won't be enough once Gonsalves moves up the ladder. Right now, Bonilla mostly wants Gonsalves to pick a breaking ball and work on it, but the left-hander is still toying with a curve and a slider, both of which require a lot of work.
His curveball is big and slow, looping way up out of his hand before riding gravity back to the strike zone. It has a notable hump to it and is easy for hitters to pick up, but because it sits in the low 70s, the change of speed is enough to steal some strikes.
Bonilla prefers the curve to the slider, which he said is "more of a cutter" and sits in the mid 80s. Gonsalves has worked a lot on the slider and is hesitant to ditch it, especially after getting pointers on that pitch from Major Leaguers James Shields and Stephen Strasburg in the offseason. Though Bonilla favors the curve, his primary desire is for Gonsalves get a feel for one or the other and focus on that.
"Both of them have different shapes, but sometimes they'll flatten out," Bonilla said. "The curve can become more of a slurve. We're trying to develop consistency with one or both of them."
Whether he makes that improvement this year or not, Bonilla expects Gonsalves will see the Florida State League at some point in 2015. If he finds a breaking pitch that works, he could rocket the rest of the way through the Minors. More likely, it'll take Gonsalves a few years to find the right breaking pitch. If and when he does, his command should earn him a Major League rotation spot.
Felix Jorge, RHP
While Gonsalves has been a consistent performer in his pro career, Jorge has often struggled in the lower levels.
The 21-year-old started the 2014 season in Cedar Rapids, and it was a disaster. After posting a 9.00 ERA, walking 20 and striking out just 23 over 39 innings, the Dominican was demoted back to extended spring training at the end of May.
The then-20-year-old joined the rotation at Rookie-level Elizabethton in June and got himself back on track. Jorge dominated the Appalachian League in 2013, posting a 2.95 ERA with 72 strikeouts in 61 innings. He was roughly as good in his 2014 return, managing a 2.59 ERA with 61 strikeouts in 66 innings.
Bonilla was the pitching coach at Elizabethton in 2013 and '14, and also worked with Jorge in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2012. Though he wasn't with Jorge and the Kernels last year, he got reports from the Cedar Rapids staff on Jorge's struggles and was among those responsible for getting Jorge to right the ship after the midseason demotion.
The pitching coach thinks the cold weather -- 2014 was an especially miserable spring in the Midwest League temperature-wise -- threw Jorge off his game. When his mechanics and command faltered early, hitters took advantage. The offensive barrage ruined Jorge's confidence, and he stopped throwing strikes with his fastball.
"You can chalk it up maybe to he had a few bad months," Bonilla said. "He got back to Elizabethton and did a lot of good stuff to get himself working downhill, worked on our programs and made some great adjustments. There were a couple of things behind that with his delivery, just to help him locate a little better with the fastball.
"This year, he's throwing the ball with much more confidence to all areas of the strike zone."
Jorge -- currently unranked on MLB.com's Twins prospect list after finishing at No. 11 last year -- is, like Gonsalves, primarily a fastball-changeup pitcher. Though Gonsalves has better command, Jorge has a more advanced breaking pitch. The 21-year-old's slider lacks consistency but flashes average potential on good days.
All that backs a fastball that's usually 90-91 mph and ticks up to 94. Jorge is a slight 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, and could add a few ticks as he ages. Because he's so slender, durability is a concern, though that hasn't been a problem so far. If he can handle a full-season work load, the potential is there for a No. 4 or 5 starter, possibly more if the velocity increases.
Royals OF Bubba Starling, Double-A Northwest Arkansas: It's been a rocky road for Starling, who will turn 23 in August. But at last, there's reason for optimism. The 2011 first-rounder (fifth overall) obliterated Carolina League pitching in a return to Class A Advanced Wilmington this year, earning a promotion to Double-A after just 12 games. The Texas League knocked Starling on his rear for a few games, but he emerged with home runs in three consecutive games last week, something he jokingly credited to a bug he ate at some teammates' behest. More seriously, Starling attributed the early breakout to an offseason spent working with Royals vice president and Hall of Famer George Brett. He and Brett worked on getting Starling into a better hitting position from both a mental and physical standpoint. The adjustments are paying dividends so far.
Dodgers RHP Jose De Leon, Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga: The 2013 24th-round pick committed himself to getting in shape in his first pro offseason and starting throwing his fastball in the mid-90s in 2014. His slider is a plus pitch and his changeup has come along, too, giving him a power arsenal with enough command to project as a Major League starter. The results have been outstanding this year. In his last two starts, the 22-year-old has 24 strikeouts over 14 innings. For the season, he has a 1.69 ERA in six California League starts with 50 strikeouts and six walks over 32 innings. Julio Urias is still the Dodgers' most exciting pitching prospect, but De Leon might join him as a top-25 overall prospect by year's end. He's been that dominant.
…And one not
Reds RHP Robert Stephenson, Double-A Pensacola: There's no denying the 22-year-old has swing-and-miss stuff, which is why the 2011 first-rounder (27th overall) is Cincinnati's No. 1 prospect. His inability to find the strike zone is an increasingly troubling development, though. After walking 4.9 batters per nine innings with the Blue Wahoos in 2014, Stephenson is walking 6.8 per nine this year. Plenty of pitchers struggle corralling outstanding stuff early in their career, and there's still time for Stephenson to right the ship. But few of Minor Leaguers go from walking five batters a game to a successful career in a Major League rotation. You'd be justified in exercising caution in projecting Stephenson's future considering his command problems.