With the new year approaching and the flurry of free agency signings slowing down, teams are rosters are starting to take form. With most of the top players in free agency off the board, teams will look through other avenues to fill their holes. As such, teams with full rotations will look to deal from strength including their minor league prospects. After the Padres set the tone by trading Zach Eflin, Max Fried, and Burch Smith for outfield starters, it won’t be surprising to see more starters traded once January begins. Here are the top five pitching prospects who could be on the move this offseason.
- Julio Urias: The Dodgers rotation is set for 2015 with Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Hyun-jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthy, and Brett Anderson or Joe Wieland. Urias finds himself on the outside looking in and could be traded for an upgrade at catcher. Los Angeles limited his innings over 25 appearances, in which he posted a 2.36 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s barely 18 and may be the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball. With a mid-90s fastball and a big-breaking curveball he has the ability to keep hitters off balance. The issue with Urias, like many young pitchers, is his control, as he had trouble hitting the target consistently with his fastball in 2014. With a three-pitch arsenal, he has the stuff to eventually be a top-of-the-rotation starter. For a team willing to gamble he may be able to start as soon as next season becoming one of the youngest pitchers to ever start in the majors.
- Henry Owens: The 6 foot 7 left-hander has an uphill battle to make the Red Sox rotation in 2015. After Boston acquired Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Justin Masterson in the offseason, Owens would likely have to pitch lights out to have a chance to make the rotation. With a fastball in the 82 to 92 mph range, but improving control, Owens has shown his potential over the last two years. His changeup is above average with excellent late movement, which makes his fastball more effective when he’s behind in the count. His ability to throw off-speed pitches for strikes is what will eventually give Owens the best chance of success in the majors. If he can consistently throw the curveball for strikes he’ll have a three-pitch arsenal and be efficient enough to be a mid-rotation starter. The good news for Owens is that despite being unable to throw in the mid-90s, his fastball has a lot of movement, which gets hitters to chase it. If he can consistently keep his pitches down in the zone, he could be ready to join a rotation by mid-2015. If not, he could provide a boost to a bullpen if the Red Sox decide to deal him for a better catcher or more established starter.
- Aaron Blair: With about eight starters who will be competing for a rotation spot next season and Archie Bradley likely to be the first call-up if injury strikes, Blair could be on the market if the Diamondbacks look to acquire a catcher or outfielder. With a smooth delivery and a projected future as an innings eater at the middle or back of a rotation, he could present a team excellent value in the future. Blair has the type of mentality coaches like to see. He relies on his instincts and has four pitches that he can throw for strikes. At 6 foot 5 and 220 pounds, his fastball can reach as high as 95 mph which looks even faster thanks to his changeup which sits in the low 80s. His curveball is behind his other pitches, but his command is adequate enough that he should be able to develop it down the road. If he can keep his fastball down in the zone and use his changeup more often to keep hitters honest, he has a bright future, which bodes well if Arizona attempts to use him as a trade piece.
- A.J. Cole: Cole could be in the majors as soon as next season if he’s able to escape the deep Washington rotation. With Washington in need of a starting second baseman Cole may be their best trade piece. After being drafted by the Nationals, Cole was traded to Oakland until being re-acquired in 2013. The 6 foot 5 right-hander can reach 95 mph on his fastball and has power curve as his out-pitch. Even when Cole isn’t on his game, his fastball explodes as it reaches hitters at the plate. The concern with Cole is his control and whether he can continue to develop his slider and power curve. That control or lack thereof is likely the reason that Cole will begin next season in the minors. A team acquiring him has to be confident that he can improve upon that control, especially after he registered a 4.48 fielding independent pitching ERA in AAA. After two consecutive years giving up under 2.0 walks per 9 innings in Double-A, the hope is that he could translate some of that control into success in Triple-A in 2015. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Washington look for deals on the market for a quality second baseman with Cole as the center of discussions.
- Luke Jackson: The Rangers could use an upgrade at catcher, designated hitter, and even in the starting rotation. With a strong farm system including fellow minor leaguer Alex Gonzalez, Jackson could be jettisoned in exchanged for one of those upgrades. With a mid-90s fastball and mid-70s changeup, Jackson has the skill level to be a quality starter in the major leagues in a year. He has a smooth delivery and the confidence to throw his off-speed pitches at the beginning of an at-bat. When he’s on his game, hitters have trouble picking up his pitch and he has the ability to generate a lot of swing and misses.Jackson still has a long ways to go in terms of fulfilling his potential as both his changeup and slider are below average. As he continues to improve his command and develop those two pitches he could be in a rotation by 2016. If he doesn’t, however, his future may lie in the bullpen. After a AAA stint that ended with a 10.35 ERA, 2.10 WHIP, and atrocious 6.30 walks per 9 innings, the Rangers will be hoping he can turn it around in 2015. If they don’t see him as part of the future, however, they may be willing to deal him to a team who believes that his high ceiling can be reached if he can develop his secondary pitches and reel in his control.
As offseason activity begins to pick up and front office’s get back into the swing of things after the holidays, it’s likely that some of these top prospects will be involved in potential trade conversations over the next month. As clubs look to fill holes or deal from a point of strength, pitching will be at a premium and young pitching prospects could become the main attraction.