Phillies' Aumont prime example of valued, bullpen-bound arm
May 17, 2012
Addison Reed is a member of "The 1 Percent," and not because of his Major League salary. Reed is the lone relief pitcher in MLB.com's ever-evolving Top 100 Prospects rankings, which are based on polling of scouts. How can this be when seven members of the modern-day 25-man roster are relievers, some of whom take the ball for the game's most crucial moments?
"I'm not sure why the perception is that relief pitchers aren't as valuable," White Sox pitching coordinator Curt Hasler said. "Tell that to Addison, because this guy is going to be very valuable."
Surely Reed, now a late-inning stopper in Chicago, isn't the lone bullpen prospect worth discussing. Are his short-stint successors in the Minors being short-changed?
To answer this question, let's establish two different positions: First, there simply aren't elite relief prospects currently; and second, there are elite relief prospects -- but they're currently stuck in starting roles. And if the latter is affirmative, is this a workable way to develop the next shutdown setup man or closer?
"There simply aren't elite relief prospects currently:" This straw-man argument is easy to dismantle. A review of bullpens in the Minors reveals that some live arms are on their way. Here is one to watch in nine of the 10 full-season leagues:
Relievers To Watch in 2012
Twins' No. 19
Tigers No. 6
Orioles' No. 17
Dodgers' No. 12
Astros' No. 14
Reds' No. 10
Phillies' No. 13
Mariners' No. 9
White Sox's No. 10
"Future relievers are stuck in starting roles:" So we've established that there are, in fact, relief pitching prospects in baseball. Phew. But who the heck is Lisalberto Bonilla? He's not ringing any bells.
Maybe fellow Phils farmhand Phillippe Aumont, one of three players sent from Seattle in the December 2009 Cliff Lee trade, will register. Before they shipped him east, the Mariners deemed Aumont, the 11th overall draftee in 2007, more suitable for the bullpen and did so after he made just eight pro starts in 2008. So why did the Phils return him to the rotation in 2010?
"You can't diminish the value of a guy if he can start -- it's harder to develop starters," Phillies assistant G.M. Benny Looper said. "More of our thought process is looking at the individual pitcher trying to develop them and [find] what role fits them best. Even if we see them as a bullpen guy, how can we help them develop that other pitch?"
Aumont, the owner of a plus fastball and curveball, did not dramatically improve the consistency of his splitter as a starter. By 2011 and back in the bullpen, where two above-average offerings is more than enough, he flourished. His 2.68 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings at Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley helped him regain his once-lost luster.
"His arm and his body reacted better pitching more often than every five days [so] that he has command of those pitches and can maintain," Looper said of the 6-foot-7, 260-pound right-hander. "The velocity of shorter periods [is higher]."
The Phillies don't make these decision overnight. Like Aumont, the organization's No. 5 prospect, No. 7 Justin De Fratus and recent callup Jake Diekman made 34 and 39 starts respectively in the Minors before they were given new roles.
De Fratus, currently out of action with a forearm strain, features a fastball-slider combo with a lagging changeup, while Diekman remade himself with a lower-arm angle. Both possess the requisite power for the 'pen.
"A guy that [starts] knows how to pitch, can make you swing at pitches out of the strike zone -- moved the ball up and down, in and out, change speeds," Looper said, "Even though you want relievers doing that, if they have power arms and power pitches, they can get by with more mistakes that aren't up and down and in and out."
"To be a reliever later in the game," agreed the White Sox's Hasler, "they need to show plus stuff."
And he would know. In addition to Reed, a fast-moving reliever from the beginning of his career, Hasler has presided over the development of starters-turned-relievers Hector Santiago and Nate Jones (and before he returned to the rotation, Chris Sale). All have gone from prospects to important pieces; all were given the opportunity to make the transition.
"When you have a good arm come into the organization, maybe we see him as a starter, maybe we see him as a reliever -- sometimes we're not sure," Hasler said, stopping to think. "Maybe it's good that they fly under the radar."
So we know Red Sox No. 18 prospect Jackie Bradleyhas not seen the film adaptation of Moneyball, but have we asked him if he he'd like to star in the sequel? Bradley has reached base in 28 straight games, upping his on-base percentage through 33 games to an even .500. Like Kurt Suzuki and Dustin Pedroia before him -- products of college powerhouses who didn't go early in the Draft's first round because of a perceived low ceiling -- Bradley is looking like a very good player, even if he is still early into his first full season.
The base on balls and the American League East, huh? Then let's go with No 37 overall prospect Dellin Betances, who has issued a remarkable 35 free passes (to go with his 35 strikeouts) through 40 innings of 2012. The Yanks' right-hander is not new to issues with command, but he's now 24 and in his second Triple-A stint, so if he's not close to solving them now, then when will he?
Spend enough time talking with the game's best pitching prospects and one thing you will notice many of them have in common -- a personal pitching coach from a young age. That's the case for both No. 10 prospect Gerrit Cole (Pirates) and No. 92 Jed Bradley (Brewers).
Cole learned his changeup and curveball in Little League from his mentor, Zak Doan. Cole started working with Doan when he was 11 and still talks pitching with him to this day. "He introduced me to all of it," Cole said. After Pittsburgh chose the right-hander first overall in the 2011 Draft, the organization asked him to reincorporate that original curveball into his five-pitch mix, which also comprises a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a circle-changeup and a slider.
Bradley, whom Milwaukee selected 14 spots after Cole last June, learned his 80-mph slider from his private guru, Joe Fletcher. During his sophomore year of high school, Bradley started working on everything from mound presence to nutrition with Fletcher, who passed away during Bradley's career at Georgia Tech University. "I wouldn't be where I am today if I didn't work with him," he said. "He taught me everything I know about pitching."
Speaking of elite starting pitching prospects, here are the probables for what has to be among the season's best matchups: When Mobile visits Jackson on Thursday, Trevor Bauer (D-backs' No. 1) will meet Danny Hultzen (Mariners' No. 1) on the mound. Also expect to see Tyler Skaggs (D-backs' No. 3) and Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer (all among the M's Top 20). The five-game series concludes Monday.
These clubs also meet Aug. 19-23, but do we really expect all these guys to still be at Double-A by then? Already gone from these still-sterling staffs: Patrick Corbin (Mobile to the Majors), Charles Brewer (Mobile to Triple-A Reno) and Andrew Carraway (Jackson to Triple-A Tacoma).
Memo from Mayo
For Draft and prospects expert Jonathan Mayo's analysis, visit MLB.com's Prospects Central.