We all know the risks when it comes to pitching prospects, as you just never know when the next highly regarded pitcher will go down due to Tommy John surgery (or another issue). Among the Top 30 there are some players currently working their way back (and while we want to assume that they will return just as good as they were before, is it really guaranteed? With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at how the rankings currently look:
|1||Casey Mize||A||Detroit Tigers|
|2||Mackenzie Gore||A-||San Diego Padres|
|3||Dustin May||A-||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|4||Jesus Luzardo||A-||Oakland A's|
|5||Matt Manning||A-||Detroit Tigers|
|6||Mitch Keller||A-||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|7||Spencer Howard||B+||Philadelphia Phillies|
|8||Nate Pearson||B+||Toronto Blue Jays|
|9||Matthew Liberatore||B+||St. Louis Cardinals|
|10||Forrest Whitley||B+||Houston Astros|
1) Casey Mize (RHP) – Detroit Tigers
Grade – A
Mize is one of the true elite pitching prospects, with the potential to develop into a Tier 1 starter. Had a shoulder injury not impacted him in 2019, causing him to miss time and return to less than stellar results, there’d be a lot of rumblings that he could make a significant impact at the Major League level in 2020. However the contrast in the results is stark and there are going to be questions about his health, as his numbers at both levels he pitched were poor in the second half:
- High-A (4.2 IP) – 3.86 ERA, 1.71 WHIP (5 K vs. 4 BB)
- Double-A (26.2 IP) – 7.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP (26 K vs. 7 BB)
The talk is that he’s healthy for the start of 2020, though until we see him on the mound that question is going to hang over him. Assuming he’s ready to roll he will make it to the Majors at some point, bringing an impressive arsenal (led by an elite split-finger fastball) and good control. He may not have the 100+ mph fastball that draws the ooos and aaahs, but the stuff is there and he shouldn’t be ignored.
2) MacKenzie Gore (LHP) – San Diego Padres
Grade – A-
Selected third overall in 2017, Gore reached Double-A in ’19 (5 starts) and while he struggled (4.15 ERA) it gives an indication of how close he is to arriving in the Majors. Overall he threw 101.0 innings, showing strikeouts and elite control:
- Strikeouts – 12.03 K/9
- Walks – 2.50 BB/9
At High-A he did not generate many groundballs (37.7%) and overall owned a 0.73 GO/AO. That could point to future home run issues as he faces more advanced hitters (his HR/9 at Double-A, albeit in a small sample, was 1.25). Is that a significant red flag? No, as he owns an elite arsenal and the other skills play up more than enough to offset it.
The southpaw pitched all of 2019 at 20-years old, so he’s clearly still learning/developing his repertoire. Expectations are that there’s even more here, but as is the future is bright. He’s one of the elite pitching prospects in the game.
3) Dustin May (RHP) – Los Angeles Dodgers
Grade – A-
May made his first impact in the Majors Leagues coming out of the bullpen, but his future lies in the starting rotation. Splitting time between Double-A (15 starts) and Triple-A (5 starts) May posted a 3.38 ERA and 1.13 WHIP, showing off all the skills we look for from a pitcher:
- Strikeouts – 9.28 K/9
- Control – 2.45 BB/9
- Groundballs – 53.0%
Obviously we’d like to see a little bit more than a 10.3% SwStr%, but he’s still learning and gaining experience at the upper levels. His stuff should develop more and more swings and misses in time, and even if he forfeits a few groundballs to do so it’s not going to be an issue. He has the potential of developing into an ace, and while the Dodgers are rich in starters May should get an extended look in the role at some point in 2020.
4) Jesus Luzardo (LHP) – Oakland A’s
Grade – A-
Last year was supposed to be the full breakout of Luzardo, as he was expected to play a significant role in the Majors. Instead injuries virtually wiped out the year, limiting him to 43.0 IP in the minors and 12.0 IP in the Majors. He clearly continued to thrive when on the mound, totaling 73 K vs. 11 BB while also keeping the ball in the ballpark (5 HR allowed).
The stuff clearly isn’t a question, but can he stay on the field and throw a significant number of innings? At 6’0” and having undergone Tommy John surgery, it’s fair to wonder if he’s going to be able to stay healthy for 200+ innings consistently. As it is he hasn’t thrown more than 109.1 IP since being drafted so it’s going to take time for him to work his way up to that level. If he can, the upside and skills are impressive. Just look at what he did in the minors last season:
- Strikeouts – 11.93 K/9 (15.9% SwStr%)
- Control – 1.67 BB/9
- Groundballs – 53.4%
5) Matt Manning (RHP) – Detroit Tigers
Grade – A-
In other organizations Manning would be regarded as the next big thing, but in Detroit he plays second fiddle to Mize. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking him, as he showed all of the skills over 133.2 innings at Double-A last season:
- Strikeouts – 9.97 K/9 (12.0% SwStr%)
- Control – 2.56 BB/9
- Groundballs – 46.8%
The big development was in his control, and at 6’6” it makes sense that at 21-years old (he turned 22 in January) it’s starting to round into form. As it does he’ll start to gain more attention as one of the elite pitching prospects, especially as he continues to develop his changeup. With more experience both the control and changeup could get even better, and he should start at Triple-A and make his MLB debut at some point in 2020.
6) Mitch Keller (RHP) – Pittsburgh Pirates
Grade – A-
Keller’s MLB debut was a spectacular failure, posting a 7.13 ERA and 1.83 WHIP over 48.0 IP. Even during those struggles he showed strikeouts (12.19 K/9) and control (3.00 BB/9), both of which resembled the marks he posted over 103.2 IP at Triple-A (10.68 K/9, 3.04 BB/9). There was plenty of poor luck behind the numbers, with a .475 BABIP and 59.6% strand rate, further supporting a rebound performance.
The one concern would be the potential for home run issues, after he posted a 39.2% groundball rate. However he was better at Triple-A (44.7%), and a 35.9% Hard% should help limit the damage. With a fastball that averaged 95.6 mph in the Majors, all signs point towards a rebound. Now isn’t the time to downgrade him, it’s the time to be looking to buy low.
Had shoulder issues not limited him to 71.0 IP in 2019 he likely would be on radars to make an impact in 2020, as he’ll open the year at 23-years old and has already reached Double-A. A potential innings limit obviously will loom large in terms of his immediate impact, though at the same time it wouldn’t be shocking for a team pushing for a World Series title to bring their top pitching prospect to the Majors.
When healthy Howard showed everything we like to see from a pitcher, with the size and repertoire (which allowed him to post a 16.0% SwStr%) to thrive:
- Strikeouts – 11.92 K/9
- Control – 2.03 BB/9
- Groundballs – 45.1%
He also continued to pitch well in the Arizona Fall League (2.11 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 27 K over 21.1 IP). Sure we’d like to see a few more groundballs (42.3% over 30.2 IP at Double-A), but as he continues to improve on his secondary pitches he could only get better and better.
8) Nate Pearson (RHP) – Toronto Blue Jays
Grade – B+
There are few pitchers with the upside of being an ace, but Pearson is one of them. Pitching across three levels in 2019 he showed more than enough in two of the three skills we look for from a pitcher:
- Strikeouts – 10.53 K/9
- Control – 2.39 BB/9
- Groundballs – 39.5%
He clearly has the stuff to miss bats, with a 13.4% SwStr%, with the size (he’s listed at 6’6” and 245 lbs.) and stuff (with a fastball that’s been clocked at over 100 mph) that teams look for. While there are still questions about his control, he’s clearly made strides there as well. The question is going to be in his home run rate, especially since he’ll currently reside in the AL East. There also is always going to be the concern that an injury could crop up, given the type of velocity he possesses, though at this point is there any pitcher who doesn’t have injury risk?
Having made a few appearances in Triple-A and with the Blue Jays in need of help in the rotation, a healthy Pearson will get an opportunity in the Majors this season.
Liberatore is still a work in progress, but his upside is clear. Pitching at Single-A in ’19 he posted a 3.10 ERA while displaying all of the skills we look for from a pitcher:
- Strikeouts – 8.73 K/9 (courtesy of a 13.3% SwStr%)
- Control – 3.56 BB/9
- Groundballs – 57.3%
There’s obviously more upside in the strikeout department, especially with a curveball that has already flashed plus. He complements it with a mid-90s fastball, slider and changeup, giving the 6’6” southpaw the arsenal to develop into a top of the rotation stud. He’ll pitch the year at 20-years old and has only thrown 111.0 professional innings, so he still needs time to refine his stuff and develop. That said the upside is obvious and it’s only a matter of time before he gets the respect he deserves.
10) Forrest Whitley (RHP) – Houston Astros
Grade – B+
The expectations were high entering 2019, with many believing Whitley would make an impact at the highest level. Instead he battled shoulder and control issues, leading to what became a virtually lost season as he threw 59.2 IP with a 7.99 ERA and 1.73 WHIP. You can argue poor luck (57.9% strand rate, .361 BABIP), and while he maintained his swing and miss stuff the other skills weren’t there:
- Strikeouts – 12.97 K/9
- Control – 6.64 BB/9
- Groundballs – 38.5%
His size (he’s listed at 6’7”) and missed time likely contributed to the control, though it’s not like he had been elite prior to 2019 (3.34 BB/9 over 137.1 IP). Obviously it was an extremely poor year, but not one that we’re willing to push the panic button over (especially after 25.0 strong innings in the Arizona Fall League, with 32 K vs. 9 BB).
The stuff is there and post-season reports have him trying to make adjustments in his delivery to improve the command. While the home run issues aren’t going to disappear, if he can show the same control he had early in his career and stay healthy the upside is tremendous.
Sources – Fangraphs, MILB.com, MLB.com
Make sure to check out all of our 2020 prospect rankings: