Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#9: Sam Tuivailala, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 23
2015 Level: Triple A Memphis, MLB
Relevant Numbers: 30.8% K rate (MLB), 97.19 mph average fastball velocity
So, what's so great about this guy?
It seems almost impossible that Tuivailala is still just 23, doesn't it? And actually won't turn 24 until after the 2016 season. After being drafted as a high school shortstop in 2010, and not hitting pretty much at all his first couple seasons in the minors, he was converted to pitching during the 2012 season. He then proceeded to fly through the system, reaching the big leagues in 2014 with just 122 minor league innings under his belt. He's been on the radar for what seems like forever, but has still only been a pitcher for roughly three years.
The good with Tuivailala is the stuff. He works consistently in the upper 90s with his fastball, topping out right around the century mark, and the pitch actually has plus movement as well. You don't see many fastballs deserving of a pure 80 grade, but Tuivailala's is probably one of them. He complements that heater with a breaking ball that began as a waterfall curve but is morphing into a large slider, as he's throwing it harder and with more tilt as time goes on. I understand the impetus, to try and disguise the pitch with more similar arm speed to his fastball, but I think I preferred the bigger, softer, more vertical curveball break, to be honest. Still, when he locates the pitch, it can be nearly untouchable as well. There are days when it might grade a 65, and days when he can't find the zone with it at all and it plays more like a 35.
There is also a cutter Tuivailala attempted to add to his delivery this past season at the behest of the major league staff, and Mike Matheny in particular had some very positive things to say about the new offering. So far, though, the pitch has gotten more publicity than results, and I'm hesitant to add too much to my opinion of Tui based on the suggestion he maybe, just maybe could be adding a third effective weapon to his arsenal. Developing...
Which brings us to the bad with Tuivailala: he's still very, very raw, and the command of his pitches just isn't there yet. He walks far too many, which as we see with Aroldis Chapman isn't necessarily a fatal flaw if you limit the hits and rack up the Ks enough to make up for it, but also lacks the command of his individual pitches to always put hitters away. It's a high-risk, reliever-only sort of delivery, so long-term durability worries me a little, but the fact he's only ever going to be a one-inning bullpen arm ameliorates those concerns to a certain extent.
Tuivailala gains his high spot on this list by dint of being major-league ready and having the upside of a shutdown late inning reliever. That being said, he still isn't a finished product, and how well he can improve his ability to harness and locate that premium stuff this season will determine how close he comes to that ceiling.
Player Comp: pick your favourite hard-throwing closer with a dominant breaking ball. Robb Nen is a good choice, as is Brad Lidge. If you want a more curveball-oriented choice, think Bobby Jenks when he broke in with the White Sox.