Sizing up the left-handed starter prospects

Lone Star Dugout analyzes the Rangers' top left-handed starting pitching prospects. Which prospects have the highest upside? Which ones are ready to make a Major League impact soon? Who needs to make their mark quickly?

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Note: For accuracy purposes, only prospects that have played professional baseball in the U.S. are eligible for this feature. These lists were compiled before Fall Instructional League, and any 2009 draft picks or international signees that have yet to play are ineligible.

Highest Ceiling

Martin Perez: Absolutely the story of the Rangers' 2009 minor league season, Perez reached Double-A Frisco at the young age of 18. And he not only reached Frisco–he showed he belonged there. Perez earned the promotion after posting a 2.31 earned-run average at Single-A Hickory while striking out 105 batters in 93.2 innings. Although he struggled at the outset, the lefty tossed five scoreless innings against San Antonio in his third Texas League start, and he logged a quality start against the eventual league champion in his fifth and final outing of the season.

Ever since joining the organization in the summer of 2007, Perez's velocity has gradually increased. His fastball sat between 93-94 mph in 2009, and he generally topped out at 95-96 a handful of times per start. Perez is still learning to pitch with the extra velocity, and his command–while decent–isn't great. Some of his fastball command issues were exposed after the promotion to Frisco, where he struggled to get ahead of hitters and didn't get many early swings.

Perez's biggest development during the 2009 campaign was his changeup, which is showing signs of becoming a legitimate plus big league pitch. The Venezuela native has a strong command of his 79-83 mph changeup, which has good fade away from right-handed hitters. The improved change is part of why he limited right-handers to just a .220 average in Hickory this past season. Although Perez's 73-77 mph curveball currently lags slightly behind his changeup, the bender should also become a plus pitch in time.

Perez won't turn 19-years-old until Spring Training breaks in early April 2010, when he should return to Frisco. Regardless of how well Perez throws next season, the Rangers likely won't want to rush the youngster to the Major Leagues, but he should absolutely be with the big club by 2011. With a hard fastball and two solid secondary pitches, Perez could have a power repertoire that includes three plus pitches, giving him true top of the rotation potential.

Ross' fastball touches 94 mph.
Robbie Ross: The Rangers signed Ross for over $1.5 million as a second-round pick in 2008, and he appears to be worth every penny thus far. The Kentucky native had a phenomenal first season at short-season Spokane, putting up a 2.66 ERA over 15 starts. In 74.1 innings, he surrendered just 68 hits, walked only 17, struck out 76, and got 3.21 groundouts per flyout.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound hurler may not have the looks of a power pitcher, but Ross appears to be a nice mixture of power and finesse. His 90-93 mph fastball is one of the best in the system because of its outstanding late movement. He generally gets late cut on his fastball, but sometimes it'll run to the arm side as well. Regardless of the direction it moves, Ross' fastball helped him constantly miss barrels and get ground balls with the Indians.

Ross' sharp slider should develop into a plus pitch, and he had quite a bit of success with it in 2009. His big focus at the recently completed Fall Instructional League was a changeup, which he didn't have much confidence in throughout the season. Ross shows some basic feel for his changeup, and he could have at least three average pitches in the future.

The 20-year-old may not have top-of-the-rotation potential exactly, but for a young prospect with little experience, he appears to have a relatively high probability of becoming a mid-rotation starter. Ross lost some velocity as he tired down the stretch of his first season [he worked between 88-90 mph at instructs], but he also bumped 94 mph at times. With his velocity, movement, promising secondary pitches, and advanced feel for pitching, he could move through the organization quickly.

Closest to Majors

Mike Ballard: After getting out to a slow start in April and May, Ballard posted a 3.18 ERA over his final 107.2 innings at Double-A Frisco in 2009. He was particularly good down the stretch, logging at least seven innings in each of his final four starts. Ballard actually began the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City, but he was sent back to Frisco despite showing signs of success.

Although Ballard spent the rest of the season back in the Texas League, he still has a chance to pitch in the Majors in some form, whether it be as a spot starter or left-handed reliever. The 25-year-old's four-seam fastball comes in at just 86-88 mph, but he does a good job of locating it on the corners and around the knees. Ballard was able to get hitters off his fastball when he added a low-80s slider/cutter, which has become a usable pitch and he threw it more and more as the season progressed.

Ballard's bread-and-butter is his plus changeup, which allowed him to have more success against right-handers than lefties this past summer. He also uses a big-breaking curveball that comes in around the upper-60s, low-70s. The former University of Virginia standout isn't going to blow anybody away on the mound, but his excellent pitchability and command of a four-pitch repertoire could give him a chance to contribute at the next level.

Kiker could help the Rangers soon.
Kasey Kiker: One of the top pitchers in the Texas League in 2009, Kiker could contribute to the Rangers' pitching staff before the end of the 2010 season. The southpaw was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the Rangers' system for much of the season [2.86 ERA in 107 innings between April and July], but his control deteriorated and his velocity declined in August, leading to a 9.47 ERA and 15 walks in 19 innings in five appearances. Kiker continued to struggle with control early in the Baseball World Cup, but he eventually righted the ship and finished on a positive note.

Kiker's fastball was a thing of mystery in 2009, as he worked anywhere between 86-94 mph, depending on the night or game situation. The 21-year-old mostly sat in the upper-80s, touching the low-90s fairly often. Regardless of velocity, he was incredibly tough to hit [.231 BAA] this past season because he throws a heavy fastball with hard, late movement. Kiker was still able to get plenty of swings and misses from his mid-80s fastballs.

The southpaw has good deception and movement on his plus changeup, which he will throw in any count to both lefties and righties. Kiker has worked hard to master his curveball, which remains a work-in-progress. He switched from a two-seam curve to a four-seam curveball in '09–which helped–but he is still looking for better command out of the pitch.

At 5-foot-10, 170-pounds, Kiker isn't the biggest guy in the world, but he has a legitimate chance to be a starting pitcher in the Majors. His overall command took another step forward for most of the 2009 campaign, but he'll need to keep improving it to stick as a starter. If he doesn't start, Kiker could be an effective power lefty out of the bullpen for the Rangers as early as next season.

The "Sleepers"

Robbie Erlin: This past summer's third-round pick only logged three innings at the end of the AZL season, but his debut couldn't have been any more impressive. Erlin fanned nine batters in four innings of work, allowing just one run. The Santa Cruz native passed up an opportunity to play with his brother at Cal Poly when he signed for a slightly above-slot bonus of $425,000.

Listed at 6-foot-0, 175-pounds, Erlin draws comparisons to fellow Rangers prospects and past high draft picks Robbie Ross and Kasey Kiker because of his smaller stature and advanced repertoire, which includes a good fastball. The 19-year-old worked between 87-88 mph in one of his three AZL outings. However, it was not only just his second appearance after a summer-long layoff, but he was also pitching in a rather large dust/rain storm. Erlin's fastball typically clocks in the upper-80s, low-90s. His strikeout pitch is undoubtedly his hard curveball, which should develop into a plus offering. He also has an advanced feel for a changeup given his age and experience level.

Escobar showed flashes of dominant stuff.
Edwin Escobar: Escobar made news when he signed with the Rangers for a reported $350,000 in the summer of 2008, and although he was inconsistent, he showed some of that potential during the 2009 season. The Venezuela native began his career in the U.S. with the AZL Rangers, where he put up a 5.00 ERA with 48 strikeouts [and 16 walks] in 45 innings.

The 17-year-old [he won't turn 18 until late April 2010] showed the ability to touch 94 mph on occasion with the rookie club, although he mostly sat between 87-90 mph. As Escobar develops and matures, his low-90s velocity should become more consistent. He also should develop at least three average pitches, as his 75-78 mph changeup is advanced and has good armside action. Escobar generally goes to his mid-70s curveball for strikeouts. Like most young pitchers, his secondary stuff is far from consistent, but when the curve is on, it has a hard, tight spin and produces some ugly swings from hitters.

Juan Grullon: The Dominican Republic native currently flies under the radar because he didn't sign for a big bonus and he doesn't have the most overpowering stuff. But he's done nothing but impress in two professional seasons. After posting a 2.44 ERA and logging 67 strikeouts in 48 innings with the DSL Rangers in 2008, Grullon moved his game to the AZL this past season, where he had a 3.51 ERA in 25.2 innings. He gave up 23 hits while walking 10 and striking out 25.

Grullon was a bit inconsistent during the season [and he also missed a month due to a minor side injury], but that's to be expected for a 19-year-old making his debut in the States. Grullon spots his upper-80s fastball well, and he touches the 90 mph range on occasion. He also uses a slider and a changeup. The 6-foot-0, 185-pound Grullon should make the jump to Spokane in 2010.

Michael Kirkman: The 23-year-old experienced his breakout season in 2009 after overcoming injury and control issues that plagued him for parts of four seasons. Kirkman had success in his return with Single-A Clinton in 2008, sitting largely between 88-90 mph with his fastball. The 6-foot-4 hurler moved up to Bakersfield to start the '09 season, and his velocity ticked up to the 91-93 mph range, touching 94 a handful of times per start. He dominated with the Blaze and held his own at Double-A Frisco, improving as the season progressed.

Kirkman's above-average velocity held up throughout the season–a promising sign for a pitcher who shattered his career high with 144.2 innings pitched this past summer. He used a slider as his strikeout pitch while also flashing a usable curve and a changeup. Because of the injuries, Kirkman still doesn't have much experience yet, and he needs to refine his command across the board. Kirkman could serve as a power lefty out of the bullpen if he doesn't develop as a starter, but that still remains to be seen down the line.

Need to Make Their Move

Murphy had better stuff down the stretch.
Tim Murphy: After a disastrous first full season that included a 6.80 ERA and a .326 opponent batting average in 135 innings, Murphy has his share of issues, but he also still has the tools to succeed. After working in the upper-80s, low-90s with his fastball at UCLA, Murphy was anywhere between 84-89 mph in 2009, but he mostly sat in the mid-80s. The 22-year-old's velocity began to tick back up late in the season, and he also showed improved command as he became more aggressive and began attacking the zone and getting ahead with his fastball.

Because Murphy lacked the overpowering fastball, his pitch counts were often driven up by a high number of foul balls. If his velocity can get back to its pre-2009 levels, he should be much less hittable as many of the foul balls turn into swings and misses. In addition to the fastball, Murphy flashes a big curveball with plus potential, although his command of the pitch was a bit inconsistent in '09. He also shows some feel for a changeup, but it is a clear third pitch at this point.

The Jury is Still Out

Richard Bleier: The 22-year-old displayed his durability by topping the system with 167.1 innings pitched in 2009. Although Bleier doesn't have overpowering stuff, he is an excellent pitcher who showed the ability to adjust and improve with experience in Bakersfield. After an incredibly rough patch in July, the Florida native righted the ship to post a 3.04 ERA with a particularly impressive 36:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final 47.1 innings.

Bleier, who consistently attacks the bottom-half of the strike with all his pitches, has plus command of his sinking fastball, which helped him get over two groundouts per flyout this past season. While the pitch generally sits in the 87-91 mph range, it dipped into the mid-to-upper-80s late in his first full season. Bleier's changeup made great strides in '09, as it became his second-best pitch and he became comfortable using it to both left- and right-handed hitters. He still must work on tightening and getting sharper break on his slider.

Cliff Springston: The Central Texas native turned heads with his first start of the season at Single-A Hickory, when he tossed seven innings of two-hit ball, allowing zero earned runs. But it was all downhill from there, as Springston got hurt and wound up having Tommy John surgery just seven starts into his first full professional season.

The Rangers' 11th-round pick in the 2008 draft throws his fastball in the upper-80s–sometimes touching 90 mph–when healthy, but his velocity dipped quite a bit just prior to surgery. He has a solid four-pitch mix that includes a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. Springston typically uses the curve early in counts, and the slider acts more as his put-away pitch.



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