Written by: Ray Butler
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Here’s a disclaimer so important I’m making it the first sentence of this article: Chris Paddacks don’t grow on trees. As a matter of fact, Chris Paddack is an exception.
A relatively-unheralded prospect at the time, the right-hander dominated hitters in Rookie Ball and Low-A while in the Marlins’ organization. Then, in the middle of the 2016 season, Paddack was traded to San Diego for….. Fernando Rodney (doesn’t every good baseball trade story eventually find its way back to Fernando Rodney?). Ranking as the Padres eighth-best prospect (according to MLB.com) following the trade, Paddack only logged 14 IP for Low-A Fort Wayne before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that mandated Tommy John surgery.
The Austin, Texas native missed the entirety of the 2017 season, and he didn’t make his 2018 debut until April 30th. Placed at High-A Lake Elsinore, it took Paddack no time to find his own form. In a mere 52.1 innings pitched (Paddack’s longest stint at a single level), the 22-year-old struck out an unsightly 14.3 batters per nine innings and posted a 2.24 ERA. What’s more, Paddack only walked four batters in ten starts.
The cherry-on-top of Paddack’s comeback was his success after being promoted to Double-A in July. The strikeouts lowered to 8.8 batters per nine innings, but the ERA shrunk to 1.91 and the BB/9 remained under 1.00.
After beginning the 2018 season as the Padres’ 22nd-ranked prospect (according to @Prospects1500), I recently ranked Paddack as the 41st-best prospect… in all of baseball. The 23-year-old’s encore performance will be the topic of much discussion heading into the 2019 season.
But what we witnessed with Paddack last season also necessitates a different, forward-thinking discussion, headed by this question: Who could be 2019’s Chris Paddack? What pitcher, returning from injury, might explode back onto the scene and re-establish themselves as a viable pitching prospect?
Now, the Pitching Graveyard is littered with pitchers who suffered severe injuries, recovered, but never reached their full potential. Modern medicine has allowed us to think optimistically about a prospect’s outlook following elbow or shoulder surgery (etc.), but the risk is obviously still inherent. Sadly, I’d be willing to bet my mortgage that at least one of the pitchers you’re about to read about never returns to the form they displayed before injury. At least one other will never reach their full potential.
Now that I’ve tempered your expectations, allow me to excite you once more: At least one pitcher on this list will return to the form they displayed before injury. At least one other will reach their full potential.
They’ve all missed substantial time due to injury, but I find myself bullish on the outlook of most of the pitchers on this list. Listed in alphabetical order to not giveaway anything from my upcoming #Top200 list, let’s take a look at the candidates to be this season’s Chris Paddack:
Note: I chose not to include Alex Reyes, Brent Honeywell and A.J. Puk on this list due to their current, consensus standing as top 50 overall prospects. Instead, I chose to focus on arms that can drastically improve their stock with effective, healthy 2019 campaigns.
Anderson Espinoza, SD. Age: 21
Remember me saying Chris Paddack ranked 8th on MLB.com’s Top 30 Padres prospects way back in 2016? Anderson Espinoza was 1st on that same list. Surely you remember Espinoza, the one-time Venezuelan prodigy who was widely listed as a top 50 overall prospect at the ripe age of 17. The right-hander was traded from the Red Sox to the Padres down the homestretch of the 2016 season, and the 108.1 IP the teenager logged between the two organizations that season marks the last time Espinoza has taken the mound in competitive play. The Padres decided to slow-play an Espinoza elbow injury throughout the first half of the 2017 season, but it was decided he needed Tommy John surgery in July. Because of the timeline, Espinoza missed the remainder of the 2017 season and the entirety of last season. He was supposed to face live batters during Instructs this fall, but Espinoza reportedly never took the mound. Now 21-years-old, the outlook for Espinoza will remain cloudy until we know more about his health and his form. That information should become clear this spring, and it could coincide with the right-hander finally returning to action in full season ball. Until then, Espinoza remains the ultimate wild card/lottery ticket and the most risky prospect on this list.
Braxton Garrett, MIA. Age: 21
The 6’3 southpaw has logged only 15.1 IP since being drafted with the 7th overall pick of the 2016 draft by the Marlins. Garrett had Tommy John surgery in June 2017, causing him to miss most of that season and all of 2018. We should see a reemergence from the 21-year-old in 2019, though, as the left-hander is expected to be ready for Spring Training and MiLB Opening Day. Garrett’s calling card has always been his hellacious curveball, but his three-pitch mix including a fastball and changeup paired with solid command means he could be a quick mover once he proves he’s truly healthy. Chris Paddack totaled exactly 90.0 IP in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. I imagine the Marlins will look to keep Garrett at around that same number, and the southpaw will optimally finish the season in the Florida State League before reaching Double-A to begin 2020.
Joe Palumbo, TEX. Age: 24
Likely being the most unknown pitcher and the oldest pitcher on this list might be a red flag for you, but I think it should scream OPPORTUNITY in the fantasy baseball world. Palumbo underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2017, causing him to miss the rest of the 2017 season and a large portion of 2018. However, Palumbo was able to return to action in June of last season, logging 45.1 IP between successful stops at Rookie Ball, High-A and Double-A. Now further removed from surgery, Palumbo should exceed 100 IP in 2019, and a big league debut this season is not out of the question. In total, the 24-year-old struck out 31.7% of the batters he faced last season. He did so while walking fewer than two batters per nine innings. The potential here is obvious. With a dynamic fastball/curveball combination and a lack of professional innings pitched, there is a little bit of bullpen risk for the southpaw. However, being early on adding Palumbo before a potential breakout could be the best move you make this season.
Nate Pearson, TOR. Age: 22
Let’s get out of the way immediately: Pearson has the most electric stuff of any pitcher on this list (as evidenced by his overall ranking compared to others on this list). Unfortunately, he pairs that electric stuff with an unfortunate injury history. The right-hander has never undergone Tommy John surgery, but he did have a screw inserted into his pitching elbow while in high school. Then in 2018, after recovering from an oblique injury that forced him to miss MiLB Opening Day, Pearson took a line-drive off his right arm in the second inning of his first start of the season. The freak injury had broken Pearson’s ulna, and he missed the remainder of the season. The 22-year-old returned for the Arizona Fall League, and all reports claim Pearson’s triple-digit velocity was back and he was able to locate his entire arsenal. At 6’6 245 lbs., the right-hander certainly has the build (to go with the stuff) to be a frontline, big league starter someday. For Pearson, 2019 will be all about logging injury-free innings. My guess is the 22-year-old starts back in High-A, with a promotion to Double-A imminent if things go decently-well early. I’ll leave you with this: When he really wants to throw it, Pearson’s slider has been clocked at 95 mph. Thank you for your time.
Franklin Perez, DET. Age: 21
Rostering Perez isn’t currently for the faint of heart, but the age and stuff belong on this list anyways. The right-hander reached full season ball as a teenager in 2016, but he’s never pitched an entire season without sustaining some sort of injury. The ailments have spanned from knee soreness, to blisters, to a long-term lat injury, to shoulder inflammation. Excited yet? Fortunately, Perez is still only 21 years old. The right-hander ranked higher than Forrest Whitley on most Astros’ prospect lists (Perez was the top prospect traded to Detroit in exchange for Justin Verlander in September 2017) as recently the midseason point of the 2017 season. Injuries derailed Perez’s first season as a member of the Tigers’ organization, and the 19.1 IP he logged in 2018 before being shut down with shoulder inflammation didn’t exactly instill confidence in anyone. Now excluded from most top 100 lists, the 21-year-old still has the stuff and time to right the ship. If he can make it to MiLB Opening Day healthy, he’ll likely begin the season at Double-A Erie. A big league debut in 2019 is certainly not out of the question here, and a season without many blips would likely land Perez back in the discussion of top 50 overall prospects.
Cole Ragans, TEX. Age: 21
I don’t know how popular this was, but I really thought Ragans was going to emerge as one of the best left-handed pitching prospects in baseball last season. But life had other plans, and Ragans underwent Tommy John surgery in March. He likely won’t return to competition until this summer, and he’s never pitched in full season ball. Because of these facts, there are other pitchers on this list with perhaps a better chance of exploding onto the scene this season. However, the southpaw has the stuff and pitchability to improve his stock via a short sample this summer. The stuff actually resemble’s Paddack’s: a serviceable fastball that plays up thanks to a devastating (perhaps plus-plus) changeup. While Paddack has better command, Ragans’ curveball has more potential than Paddack’s, and Ragans does it all as a left-hander. I ranked the southpaw 82nd on my top 200 prospect list last preseason (I’m a big believer), and I think Ragans has an outside chance of cracking top 100 lists again next preseason if he performs well this summer.
Chris Rodriguez, LAA. Age: 20
There are a plethora of reasons Rodriguez remains a great buy-low option heading into the 2019 season. First and foremost, the injury (a stress reaction in his back) that caused Rodriguez to miss the entirety of the 2018 season had nothing to do with his elbow or shoulder. Next, Rodriguez arguably has the best stuff of any pitcher (excluding Nate Pearson) on this list. Finally, despite missing an entire season of development versus competition, the right-hander is still only 20 years old. To me, those are all ingredients for a reemergence in 2019. Rodriguez’s fastball and slider are unquestionably plus pitches, but his curveball grades the same way when he’s at his best. With an arsenal that’s capped with a changeup that’s still developing, the 20-year-old should be able to mow down hitters in the low minors he’ll face to begin the 2019 season. There’s certainly still top-end upside here, Rodriguez simply needs to remain healthy and log quality innings beginning this season.
Clarke Schmidt, NYY. Age: 23
The prospect world (myself included) can’t wait to see what Schmidt does in 2019, and with good reason. The Yankees first round pick in 2017, Schmidt had actually undergone Tommy John surgery 40 days before being drafted. The surgery caused the right-hander to miss the remainder of the 2017 season and most of last season, but 2019 should really be the year we see what the right-hander is made of. Able to throw his four pitch arsenal confidently to any batter in any count, Schmidt should move quickly through the Yankees’ system if things go the way they should. Though he didn’t pitch at a level above Short Season A after returning to action last summer, it’s completely possible (though perhaps not likely) Schmidt logs innings for the big team at some point in 2019. From what I’ve heard, the Yankees are that high on him. You likely won’t catch him on any 2019 preseason top 100 lists, but Schmidt might be the safest pitcher on this list. He’s also the one with the most to gain. Chew on that for a minute.
Thomas Szapucki, NYM. Age: 22
You notice two things immediately when scanning Szapucki’s player page on Fangraphs or Baseball Reference: lack of innings pitched and a pile of strikeouts. Let’s focus on the former first. A back injury forced Szapucki to be shut down at the end of the 2016 season. A shoulder impingement delayed the start of his 2017 season. The unfortunate grand finale, Szapucki suffered an elbow injury in July of 2017, and subsequent Tommy John surgery caused the southpaw to miss the remainder of the 2017 and all of last season. Now 22 years old, the hope is Szapucki is able to return to form and log meaningful, healthy innings in 2019. The southpaw’s stuff certainly isn’t the issue: a high 90’s fastball and a plus curveball have overwhelmed hitters when Szapucki’s been healthy. The problem, of course, is that the southpaw has totaled only 83.1 IP in four seasons as a professional pitcher. The 22-year-old is reportedly healthy, and he should be ready for MiLB Opening Day this season. The risk here is apparent, but the #PostHype emergence of Szapucki could be very real too.
Hopefully, the most important revelations you had while reading this article is the realization that *those* pitching prospects are returning from injury in 2019. In the past, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably forgotten about a pitching prospect returning to competition until you’ve seen their box score on Twitter. Hopefully this article remedies that for you in 2019.
As I’ve already said: I’d be willing to bet at least one pitcher from this list make a Chris Paddack-like ascension on top prospect lists throughout 2019. Who do you think it’ll be?
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