I was thinking, in the vague and unfocused way that I generally have, of writing this morning about how utterly bizarre this particular Cardinal spring training has been, particularly in terms of the way the roster seems to be shaping up.
Sadly for me, my colleague Dan yanked the rug out from under my feet by writing about just that very thing yesterday; thus, I come before you this morning with yet another in my eternal series of draft previews.
Interesting little tie-in to this one, by the way; on Monday afternoon, in the Cardinals' game against the Tigers, we saw a young man by the name of Ryan Perrry take the mound for the Detroit Nine. Perrry is a righty who was drafted by the Tigers just last year in the first round, at #21 overall.
By perhaps the least remarkable coincidence in the history of anything, I happened to write up a very brief assessment of Mr. Perry last year, in a post about several collegiate pitchers of the right-handed variety. At the time, I described him as a hard-throwing righty with a rather violent delivery and questionable secondary pitches who profiles better as a closer than a starter in professional baseball.
Well, first off, let me say I was wrong about one thing: Ryan Perry doesn't throw hard. He throws really, really, really hard. The guy actually hit higher on the radar gun than our very own Jason Motte, which is definitely something to be impressed by. Other than that, I think my assessment was pretty much on the money. I do think his delivery looked a little smoother on Monday than what I recall from the videos I found around draft time, but I'm not willing to lay much money on that. His slider looked pretty good, and he pretty much didn't need much of anything else. In short, young Mr. Perry was very impressive in the brief look I got at him.
Jason Stoffel, RHP, University of Arizona
DOB: 15th September, 1988
6'1", 220 lbs.
So, what's so great about this guy?
Stoffel is, as of right now, considered the top college closer in the 2009 draft. He was the closer on the same Arizona team last year that featured a pair of first-round draftees at the back end of the bullpen, in the hard-throwing lefty Daniel Schlereth and the aforementioned Ryan Perry. (And by the way, that had to be one of the most ridiculous bullpens ever assembled in college baseball, wouldn't you think?) The fact that both of those players played second fiddle to Stoffel should tell you a little something about the quality of pitcher we're talking about here.
As far as stuff goes, Stoffel has more than enough to get the job done, beginning with a fastball that cruises along easily in the low 90s, reaching up into the mids occasionally. I have seen one scouting report that has him reaching as high as 98, but that one seemed to be a definite outlier. Sadly, I've seen only minimal video of Stoffel pitching myself, so I can't really verify one way or the other. His fastball features not only good velocity, but unusually good movement that generates lots of ground balls and funny looking swings. He pairs it with a power curve that has nice depth, though he does tend to slow his arm a bit when throwing it. Still, it profiles as a future plus pitch, giving him two above-average offerings. His changeup showed promise in high school, when he was still a starter, but Stoffel hasn't thrown it much (read: at all), since moving to closer at Arizona.
Adding to the package with Stoffel is very good control, as evidenced by a 79/15 K/BB ratio in 2008, a bulldog's mentality that profiles well for short work, and a real gift for keeping the ball in the ballpark. In fact, in two years closing for Arizona, Stoffel has given up one, count it, one long ball. Not a bad recipe for a closer, eh?
There really isn't a whole lot not to like with Stoffel, as he doesn't have much in the way of weak spots. He has a thick, mature body already, so there isn't much left in the way of projection. That isn't really a concern, though, as he already has plenty of velocity to get the job done.
While Stoffel could possibly see a team try to get him to develop his changeup and turn him back into a starter, the most likely scenario is for him to come off the board early as the best bullpen arm in the draft and move quickly through someone's system.
Ben Tootle, RHP, Jacksonville State University
DOB: 9th January, 1988
6'1", 185 lbs.
So, what's so great about this guy?
If Stoffel is the top college closer in the draft, then Ben Tootle is that number one guy that, yeah, he's a starter now, but everyone knows he's really just a closer waiting to happen.He really exploded on to the prospect scene last summer with a great Cape Cod League performance; prior to that he was seen as a fairly nondescript guy, albeit one with a nice arm.
When it comes right down to it, Tootle fits the profile of the terrifying, shut down closer better than probably any other pitcher in the draft. He throws very, very hard, in the mid-90s starting, and up in the uppers when he's pitched in short, relief type outings. It has nasty, riding life to it as well, complicating a hitter's life even further. When Tootle can locate his fastball for strikes (which, unfortunately for him, isn't nearly as often as one would like), he's nearly unhittable just with the fastball alone.
What is even more impressive, though, is that Tootle's fastball may not even be his best pitch. He throws a wicked slider with an unusually large break on it; it's really more of a big, hard slurve, but somehow still sharp. I've seen a few of them, and let me tell you, that is a frightening, frightening pitch. Actually, come to think of it, his breaking ball reminds me a little bit of Scot Shields of the Angels, that big, hard slurve that he throws.
Tootle has no real changeup to speak of, yet another nail in the coffin of his starting career. Interestingly, in his scouting report over at Brewerfan (which, by the way, if you aren't aware of, is one of the best resources around for draft coverage), it states that he's had problems pitching out of the stretch in the past, mostly because he tries to use a much lower leg kick and his delivery suffers. I haven't seen enough of Tootle personally to know on that one, but I trust that the report is probably accurate.
He does have a very interesting delivery, with a huge leg kick. Looking at his mechanics, I actually think they're pretty sound; I like his arm action, with an elbow that stays below shoulder level throughout. I have only seen full-speed video, though, so take that with a grain of salt.
Tootle isn't real big, probably another point for him closing down the line, but he keeps himself in remarkable shape. There are some negatives, namely the fact that he's been more hittable in the past than someone with his stuff should be. His control comes and goes at times as well. For the most part, though, he's been much more effective in shorter outings, exactly the sort that most expect he'll end up seeing as a professional.
Some video for your perusal:
Scott Bittle, RHP, Ole Miss University
DOB: 27th August, 1986
6'1", 190 lbs.
So, what's so great about this guy?
You know, we hear the term "Nintendo numbers" thrown around quite often. Occasionally, the use is even justified. Well, if you want to see what video game numbers look like, look no further than one Scott Bittle. In 2008, Mr. Bittle appeared in 27 games, all out of the bullpen for Ole Miss. He threw 70.2 innings, often functioning as a middle reliever, setup man, and closer in the same game. In those 70 innings, he:
allowed 35 hits,
walked 30 batters,
compiled a 7-1 record,
posted a 1.78 ERA,
held opponents to a .145 BAA,
struck out 130.
Okay, now which one of those numbers jumps out at you? Well, yes, besides all of them.
That's right. In 2008, Scott Bittle struck out 16.6 batters per nine innings. Sixteen and one half. That is utterly unreal.
Now, looking at those numbers, you would expect a seven foot giant, throwing 110 mph. With his changeup. But no, Scott Bittle actually pitches in the 89-91 range with his fastball, topping out at around 93. So how, exactly, you ask, does a guy throwing Jeff Suppan's fastball strike out almost two batters an inning?
Scott Bittle features, quite possibly, the single best pitch in the draft. He throws a cut fastball in the mid-80s that almost seems to defy description. It has this funny, late movement that seems to combine the best elements of both a cutter and a splitter, and hitters just sort of wave helplessly at the thing.
So, what we have here is a guy who isn't all that big, he doesn't throw real hard, and as far as projection goes, he's probably pretty maxed out already for his frame, so there isn't a whole lot more coming. In spite of all that, he struck out over 16 men per nine innings last year, and gave up less than one hit every two innings. So what's not to like?
Well, unfortunately, there is something, and it's sort of a doozy. See, Scott Bittle was the second round draft pick of the New York Yankees last year. Not bad, huh? Strike out almost two an inning? Check. Win seven games in relief? Check. Get drafted by the most storied franchise in baseball? Check.
And that's when the speed bump came along.
The Yankees and Bittle were unable to come to terms on a contract last year, and the cause was not money. The Yankees found something in Bittle's shoulder on an MRI that they apparently did not like at all. Bittle and his agent, of course, argued that no other doctors had found anything wrong, and he was pitching free of pain, but the Yankees didn't seem to want any real part of that shoulder, because negotiations broke off soon after. So, Bittle went back to Ole Miss, and he'll be back in the draft this June.
So while he's easily the pitcher with the best track record of this group (hell, that's the best track record of just about any group you can sling together), Bittle is also probably the biggest risk of these pitchers, due to a problematic medical situation. Nonetheless, he's projected by most draft expert types as a first-round sort of talent, just maybe not a first-round sort of draft pick.
While he's certainly an unusual pitcher, there is a precedence for the type of guy we're talking about here, i.e. a pitcher without overwhelming velocity, but a pitch so nasty that he just dominates. Edwar Ramirez, the Yankee reliever with the wicked changeup, pops immediately to mind, as does Keith Foulke, who made a pretty damned good career out of a changeup that no one seemed to be able to figure out. The one comp that I immediately thought of, though (and maybe it's just because of the beard commercial), was a closer whose name we all know quite well: Bruce Sutter. Sutter never threw hard, even in his young days, but he came up with a pitch that absolutely baffled hitters, and he rode it all the way to the Hall of Fame. Now, please don't think I'm trying to predict a similar career path for Bittle; I'm only saying there is a definite precedent for a pitcher to be very good, even dominant, with a secondary pitch that's just off the charts good, even in the absence of a big time arm. (For the record, even though Mariano Rivera comes to mind as a guy with the overwhelming cutter and so should be an obvious comp, he also throws really, really hard, and so is a slightly different category of pitcher to me.) Come to think of it, John Franco and his screwball probably work here as well.
Of course, there is also the issue of the shoulder problem, which was described by the Yankees only as "wear and tear." Thanks, guys, that cleared things right up. Given the Cardinals' track record with injured shoulders, I would think they might give this guy a wide, wide berth. However, the perceived injury might also cause Bittle to drop dramatically on draft day, which could certainly make him an intriguing pick in, say, the second or third round. At the very least, we can all hope Bittle performs well and becomes a really interesting test case for what happens when a guy is thought to be injures even while putting up big time numbers.
Some video for you. (Pretty short, but nice quality, at least.)
So that's my list of the top college relief arms available in the '09 draft. (Okay, so one guy is still technically a starter. He's going to be a closer, mark my words.) I wonder: what would all of you out there think if one of these guys heard their names called at 19? I'm sure there would be a lot of grumbling about overdrafting, and a large percentage of it would likely come from me, but then again, any of these guys have the potential to be a Ryan Perry. Or a Huston Street. Or any of the other college closers we've seen in recent years who have shot right through a minor league system and become solid contributors to the big league club in short order. It's certainly cheaper than signing guys like Brian Fuentes, or even the Ghost of Kerry Wood, on the open market.
Me? Well, I like to see one college closer taken in the first five rounds, and two in the first ten. Would I spend a first round pick on any of these guys? Probably not, especially considering the depth the Cards have at right-handed relief. But a guy like Bittle, if he drops, I would certainly be interested. He's there in the second, I would be sorely tempted. Still there in the third, I think I have to snatch him up. Unless, of course, his arm falls off this spring.
Then, I'll wait and see if he can throw that cutter with his left.