Down on the Farm: April’s Hottest Minor League Pitchers

The calendar has turned to May, and I took a look at the minor’s hottest hitters in April a few days ago. There were also a number of pitchers that had outstanding Aprils. In fact, there were entirely too many to give everyone their proper due. With that in mind, I tended to slant toward starting pitchers that pitched more than 20 innings. There is only one starting pitcher, a special prospect, who failed to eclipse 20 innings and still found their way into this article. All stats were current as of May 1, so the statistics illustrate each pitcher’s work in the month of April.

Dylan Bundy- Low-A- Baltimore Orioles- 19 years old

Stats: 17 IP, 0 W, 2 BB, 25 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.18 WHIP

Bundy has been an absolute monster. He’s illustrating why there were scouts and prospect pundits that thought Bundy was the top pitcher in last June’s draft. He has been described as one of the most polished prep pitching prospects in recent memory, and there is little to pick apart here. The biggest complaint is that Bundy has been kept on a strict pitch/innings count. He pitched only three innings in each of his first three starts, which meant he never went through an order a second time. Since those first three starts, he has pitched four innings in each of his next two. Nitpicking aside, he didn’t allow his first base runner until walking a batter in his third start, and didn’t allow his first hit until his fifth start. It’s hard to envision Bundy staying at Low-A much longer, but a few turns in which he is forced to work through a lineup more than once wouldn’t hurt.

Archie Bradley- Low-A- Arizona Diamondbacks- 19 years old

Stats: 26 IP, 3 W, 14 BB, 30 K, 2.08 ERA, 0.85 WHIP

Bradley will likely always be compared to fellow Oklahoma high school 2011 draftee, Bundy. While he has allowed more base runners than Bundy, he has been equally impressive in some respects. Bradley has pitched no fewer than five innings in a start, reaching that total in four starts, and pitching six innings in a fifth start. He allowed just eight hits in April, and allowed no hits in two starts. He’s missing bats in bunches, and is getting a high number of his outs on balls in play on the ground. Kevin Goldstein has said on more than one occasion at Baseball Prospectus that he has talked to a scout that would take Bradley to Bundy.

Jose Fernandez- Low-A- Miami Marlins- 19 years old

Stats: 28.1 IP, 3 W, 9 BB, 37 K, 1.59 ERA, 0.88 WHIP

Yet another prep arm selected in the first round of last June’s draft, Fernandez has been outstanding. Fernandez’s handling more closely resembles Bradley’s than Bundy’s. He has gone no fewer than five innings in a start, and has pitched six innings in three of five starts. One of those three six inning starts was of the no-hit variety. He’s striking a ton of batters out, and his walk rate is plenty good enough. He’s a big pitcher, 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, and projects to be an innings work horse. The Marlins have developed some excellent pitchers over the years, and Fernandez is the next in line to add his name to that list.

Matt Barnes- Low-A- Boston Red Sox- 21 years old

Stats: 26.2 IP, 2 W, 4 BB, 42 K, 0.34 ERA, 0.60 WHIP

Think the 2011 pitching draft class is living up to the hype in the early going? How good has the class been? The top three pitchers selected, who have pitched plenty good themselves, didn’t even make this list. Barnes was the 11th pitcher selected, and the Red Sox are looking quite smart for popping him 19th overall. His strong April has led to a promotion to High-A, where he’ll face a challenge that’s more appropriate for a college arm. His strikeout-to-walk rate is eye popping, and he’s getting groundballs. If those things carry over to High-A, it’s not out of the question that he’ll reach Double-A this season.

Andrew Chafin- High-A- Arizona Diamondbacks- 21 years old

Stats: 27.2 IP, 3 W, 6 BB, 45 K, 2.28 ERA, 0.90 WHIP

Chafin is a bit of a forgotten man as he was part of this past June’s loaded draft, and is also a part of a deep list of pitching prospects in Arizona. That’s a shame, because all Chafin is doing is making High-A batters look silly. His 14.64 K/9 would be elite for a relief pitcher, he’s doing it as a starter, making it mind boggling. The Diamondbacks selected Chafin in the supplemental first round last June, pick 43 overall. As a lefty, Chafin’s low-90s fastball is a plus velocity offering, but it is his slider that is his nastiest plus offering. With Pat Corbin now in the majors, Chafin could serve the role of third prospect arm in a loaded Mobile rotation soon enough.

Cody Buckel- High-A- Texas Rangers- 19 years old

Stats: 27.1 IP, 2 W, 9 BB, 33 K, 1.65 ERA, 0.91 WHIP

Since joining professional baseball in 2010, Buckel has been excellent. He was a second round pick of the Rangers that year out of high school, and he’s proving to be a good investment. His pitching acumen gets better reviews than his stuff, but he does mix four pitches that are solid. His stuff plays up thanks to an unorthodox delivery, and so far, it has worked. High-A hitters aren’t providing Buckel much resistance, but he’s just 19 years old, so the Rangers may be reluctant to bump him up to Double-A too soon.

Jameson Taillon- High-A- Pittsburgh Pirates- 20 years old

Stats: 24.2 IP, 1 W, 4 BB, 28 K, 1.46 ERA, 0.77 WHIP

No longer under the tight restrictions the Pirates imposed in 2011, Taillon is flourishing this season. Taillon failed to reach the fourth inning in his first start, but has pitched no fewer than five innings in any of his starts since. He’s striking out better than a batter an inning, and he’s issuing hardly any free passes. There is no rush with Taillon, but if he develops as expected, he’ll be well worth the wait.

Edwar Cabrera- Double-A- Colorado Rockies- 24 years old

Stats: 33 IP, 3 W, 3 BB, 29 K, 1.64 ERA, 0.58 WHIP

Cabrera’s ceiling is far below that of the other starting pitchers featured in this article. He was last year’s minor league strikeout leader, riding his change-up to the top of the heap. His problem is that his change-up is his only plus pitch, and his fastball primarily operates in the upper-80s occasionally hitting the low-90s. He’ll continue to need to prove himself moving up the ladder, but he’s passing his Double-A test in the early going.

Tyler Thornburg- Double-A- Milwaukee Brewers- 23 years old

Stats: 28 IP, 2 W, 7 BB, 33 K, 1.93 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

Thornburg is another pitcher who needs to prove he doesn’t belong in the bullpen. He has been very good in his minor league career, including a hot start to 2012. Even with his hot start, there are questions as to whether or not he profiles in a rotation or in a bullpen. I recently tweeted to Keith Law asking what it was about Thornburg that leads to questions about his ability to start, is it his stuff, delivery or size, to which he responded yes. I set myself up for a smart ass response, but the point being, his stellar play doesn’t change his ceiling. At best, Thornburg pitches at the back of a rotation, where he could provide value with strikeouts if his stuff continues to play as he moves up professional levels. At worst, he ends up in a bullpen, falling short of a closer gig, and providing almost no fantasy value.

Trevor May- Double-A- Philadelphia Phillies- 22 years old

Stats: 30 IP, 5 W, 8 BB, 33 K, 2.40 ERA, 0.97 WHIP

May has never had problems striking batters out, but has fought with himself in the past, struggling with control. He made strides last year, and has taken his gains to another level this year. His 2.40 BB/9 is easily the best mark of his career, and he has continued to strike out a ton of batters while pounding the zone. He has won all five of his starts, and has struck out no fewer than six batters in a start. He has walked no more than three batters in a start, his first start of the year, and walked zero batters in his last start on April 30. If he keeps this up, a September call-up, when rosters expand, isn’t out of the question. He has a high ceiling, and found his name on all major top-100 prospect lists.

Taijuan Walker- Double-A- Seattle Mariners- 19 years old

Stats: 22 IP, 3 W, 6 BB, 26 K, 1.64 ERA, 1.00 WHIP

I may have saved the most impressive starting pitcher for last. When you factor in his age, the minor league level he’s pitching at, and the length of his starts (no less than five innings pitched in any of his starts) and the total package is pretty darn impressive. Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks discuss this, as well as the play of other notable pitching prospects, in their most recent Baseball Prospectus Up and In Podcast (no subscription necessary to listen). Walker has front of the rotation upside, and has successfully made a smooth transition from pitching at Low-A to Double-A, while bypassing High-A. I would have little argument with anyone ranking Walker as the top pitching prospect to own in dynasty formats.

Shawn Tolleson- Double-A- Los Angeles Dodgers- 24 years old

Stats: 10 IP, 4 SV, 3 BB, 18 K, 0.90 ERA, 0.90 WHIP

Tolleson’s bullpen ceiling may fall short of the ninth inning, but his video game numbers and solid scouting reports suggest he should still be a high leverage late inning reliever nonetheless. He’s dominating both right-handed, and left-handed batters this year, and should see time in the Dodgers bullpen sometime this season if he keeps making pitching in the minors look like child’s play.

Deolis Guerra- Double-A/Triple-A- Minnesota Twins- 23 years old

Stats: 15.2 IP, 1 SV, 2 BB, 17 K, 0.57 ERA, 0.57 WHIP

Looking for a dark horse to rack up saves later in the season? Guerra could be that guy. Matt Capps hasn’t been all that impressive this season, and since shifting from starting to relieving last year, Guerra’s stock has shot up. Guerra’s best pitch is his change-up, and it is a put away offering. His fastball plays up a few ticks moving from the low-90s to the low-to-mid-90s in the bullpen. He keeps the ball on the ground, and throws strikes. He’s in Triple-A now, and it’s not hard to envision an early summer promotion to the majors.

Heath Hembree- Triple-A- San Francisco Giants- 23 years old

Stats: 9 IP, 5 SV, 2 BB, 6 K, 2.00 ERA, 0.78 WHIP

Santiago Casilla has been excellent taking over for injured Giants closer Brian Wilson, so Hembree may not get his first shot to lay claim to closing for the parent club until next season. In the mean time, he’s continuing to successfully shut the door in the minors. His walk rate is down significantly this year, and he possesses an electric arm that profiles well at the back of a bullpen. While he isn’t likely to save games for the Giants this year, he may still get his major league introduction this year.