This is the part of the off-season where I feel a little like a member of a stranded traveling party—if not quite that traveling party, even though they did originate from my hometown—waiting out the lack of newsworthy material. A rare bit of that manna comes from Future Redbirds, who doled out the last of their top twenty prospects just in time for Christmas to wipe out the internet for two or three blissfully disconnected days. As ever I won't spoil the whole list, but Lance Lynn managed fourth place, one spot behind his Sickels slot.
Don't get me wrong—I agree with his general placement. It's a thin system, and maintaining seven strikeouts per nine innings as a 22 year-old pushed fairly rapidly into the high minors is about all it takes to earn my prospect trust. But it occurs to me that we don't have a unified vocabulary for prospect discussion.
So today's mission, should you choose to talk about it, is this: Tell me (us) what the following prospect-speak means to you.
Innings Eater. I've obviously voted on this one with my choice of AP photo. An innings eater provides an ERA around, but possibly over, the league average; he doesn't strike out a lot of batters; he pitches around, but possibly under, 200 innings.
He is, in a perfect world, Jeff Suppan. When he has a career year it's completely unreported by his FIP, which remains comfortably above his ERA. Jason Marquis is another fair example. (Does anybody else remember being really excited about Jason Marquis following the 2004 season? He threw hard, he got groundballs, his strikeout rate and his walk rate were heading in the right directions, he could hit—and then he turned into Jeff Suppan overnight. Not exactly overnight; he had an impressive-enough April, 2005, hot on the heels of his at-least-someone-didn't-suck performance in the World Series, that he made me write the words "Leo Mazzone's Rosebud." Thanks for nothing, guy.)
Third Starter. Second only to the Innings Eater in both his frequency on prospect lists and his disconnection from reality, it seems like both of these hazy prospect figures exist much more frequently on lists than they do in real life. You know how many players pitched at least 190 innings with an ERA+ of at least 100 last year? Neither do I. But Baseball Reference tells me it's exactly 41. With 30 teams left to fight for those guys between Zack Greinke (ERA+ 205) and Scott Baker (ERA+ 100) on that list it seems like the average team's third starter is practically, if not technically—accounting for injuries, ineffectiveness, et cetera—not much like a third starter at all.
But as scout's nomenclature it seems to have been bestowed upon Jaime Garcia-class prospects. They're close to the majors; they're likely to get there and be effective in some role for a few years; but they seem to be cursed to maintain an ERA+ of 110—125 some year when their command inexplicably improves, 90 some year when they're hiding elbow problems—into perpetuity. It's easier to say "he looks like a future third starter" than "this guy doesn't excite me at all, and he's never going to win a Cy Young, but his numbers are good enough that Baseball America is making me write this capsule."
Mid-90s fastball. Low-90s fastball.
Future set-up man. These words strike fear into my heart like no others, and I'm interested to see what other people think when they read them. Most often applied to guys like the Cardinals' own Scott Gorgen, they seem to be code for a particularly inglorious combination of innings-eater stuff with future-closer command problems. If the pitcher is a starter, like Gorgen or P.J. Walters, it means he doesn't have the fastball to get major league hitters out on a regular basis, but he might be able to get away with something if he only has to do it once or twice in a game. If the pitcher is a reliever, it means he doesn't strike out a batter an inning now, playing for the high-A Rockford Clawhammers, and he probably won't be doing it in the majors, either. Most of these guys have low-90s fastballs.
Low-90s fastball. I've seen this guy throw three times and he didn't break 88 once, but he seems nice enough.