Touch’em All: Top MLB Northwest League Pitching Prospects
So here we are at mid-season now and the Northwest League Short Season is underway. That said, the Baseball Instinct team is jumping in to profile some of the best performances so far and possibly give you a hint of what is to come with these young ballplayers. Keep in mind that these are players at the very beginning of their professional careers and that this is a top performers list and not a top prospects list. So let’s GO!
Justin Nicolino, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays (19) – The slender, and I mean slender, lefty hurler tips the scales, reportedly, at 160lbs while standing 6’ 3” tall. Selected 80th overall (2nd round) in the 2010 amateur draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, 19-year-old Justin is opening some eyes with just 6 starts in professional ball. Sporting a 1.55 ERA with 38 k’s in just 29 Northwest League innings, Nicolino keeps his pitches in the ballpark (zero homeruns allowed) and maintains a groundball rate of 56%. The key, right now, to his success sits in the advanced command he has with his above average change-up and decent curveball. Success in higher levels will depend on the development of his fastball, which in high school worked at 86-89, but now sits at 90mph and tops out at 92. Once he puts some meat on those skinny bones of his, it wouldn’t be out of the question that he eventually work in the 90-92 range and top out 93-94 or even more. If all goes well, this could be a mid-rotation guy. Keep an eye on this kid.
Matt Andriese RHP, San Diego Padres (21) – This big bodied right-hander from UC Riverside has been dominating the Northwest League in small doses. Because the 2011 3rd round pick pitched some 90 innings in college this spring, the Emeralds have him on a very strict pitch count. However you look at it, the results are exciting, but not unexpected for a college kid and high draft pick at this level. After starting 8 games (averaging 4 innings or so a start), Andriese owns a 1.80 ERA, walking 10 and striking out 34 batters and limiting opposing hitters to a measly .186 batting average. The 21-year-old keeps his good 90-93 mph fastball and his OK secondary pitches (curve, slider, change) down in the zone to maintain an awesome 59% groundball rate and keep balls in the yard (zero HR allowed). The challenge for him, next year, when he is freed of this season’s workload, is seeing him exhibit this kind of domination when hitters get to see him on the mound more than once or twice a game. After this pit stop in the NWL, Look for him to try his luck in Class A Fort Wayne to start next season. And if he does well there, another promotion in the same year probably isn’t be out of the question.
Willengton Cruz, LHP, Chicago Cubs (20) - Currently a 20-year-old, having worked through almost three years of professional ball (2 years in the Dominican Summer League and the current season in Boise), he was signed out of La Romana, Dominican Republic at age 18. At 6’2’ and 170lbs, Cruz has plenty of room on his frame to build up his body and possibly add a tick or two to his low 90s fastball and make his, at times, plus change-up that much better. This season in Boise, Willengton maintains a terrific 1.95 ERA and struck out 34 in 32.1 innings pitched. Reportedly, a lot of his strikeouts happen with swings and misses, but this season, he has given up 30 hits, which tells me that he’s had some command problems, but the quality of his stuff makes up for it at this level. The next step in Cruz’s development will most likely happen some time next season where he could make the jump to Class A Lansing.
Will Lamb, LHP, Texas Rangers (20) – The 20-year-old Will Lamb hasn’t performed like most of the names on this list. That is not to say he hasn’t been good. He has. Very good actually, considering that he was mainly a CF in college. He pitched only about 50 innings in two seasons for Clemson with an ERA north of 5.00 for each. But now, young Mr. Lamb, for the first time in his athletic career, is now focused on pitching and in 17 innings (not counting a stint of relief to start the season) has struck out 17 and maintains a nifty 2.65 ERA. The 2011 2nd round selection has one of those long-limbed projectable bodies (6’6” 180lbs) that scouts drool over, in a totally platonic manner of course. Add to that proven athleticism that comes from being an everyday centerfielder, a clean delivery, a potential plus slider and an already 95 mph fastball and you have a southpaw with a very very high ceiling. The development of a change-up or other third pitch may be on the horizon, but right now, all that is required of Lamb is that he . . .well . . Pitch.
Yao-Lin Wang, RHP, Chicago Cubs (20) - This Taiwan Junior National Team member was one of the hardest throwing young pitchers in his country, featuring a low 90s fastball that tops out at 94. Confronted with a troubling period of culture adjustment after signing at the end of 2009, the 20-year-old has improved his numbers in each category. Current ERA is 2.27 compared to the 6.43 that he posted in Boise last season. His strikeout rate jumped to 26.6% from 15.9 in 2010. Plus, his groundball rate improved to 50% from the decent 42%. Same with BB%, this season saw him cut it down to 6.9% from 11.1%. Coaches say he’s also gone from being timid on the mound to being an aggressive strike-thrower who never wants to leave the game. While his new aggressiveness and comfort on the hill definitely has showcased his abilities, his giving up 40 hits in 43.2 innings tells me that, at higher levels, he’ll need to throw a little less around the plate and learn to set up hitters better with his curve and change-up. That said, coaches, reportedly, love this kid. What’s not to love?
Colin Rea, RHP, San Diego Padres (21) – Like teammate Matt Andriese, this Indiana State University product won’t be in the NWL for long. The immense (6’5” 225lbs) right-hander has been lights out since joining the Eugene Emeralds. Through 8 starts and 32 innings pitched, the kid has maintained a sick .87 ERA, giving up only 3 earned runs for the season. This 12th round pick’s numbers are so silly good that they probably should be ignored as unrepeatable at higher levels. That is not to say that they are illegitimate, but you should know that he will come back to earth at some point. Rea uses his height and clean delivery to send a low 90s fastball to the plate at a terrific downward plane, inducing groundballs at an excellent 54% rate. He also features a sharp slider that he throws in any count. His change-up is a work in progress. At this point, he doesn’t really need the change to be successful, but success at higher levels with depend greatly on the development of that pitch.
Thanks for checking in. We here at Baseball Instinct love comments and feedback, so feel free to let us know how you are liking everything or send us suggestions for what you want to see. The New York/Penn league hitters and pitchers are next. Keep coming back and we’ll keep providing the info and analysis. Don’t forget to check out the Hitters of the NWL as well.