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.
#2: Jack Flaherty, RHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 20
2015 Level: Low A Peoria
Relevant Numbers: 95 IP, 97 K, 23.7% K rate, 7.6% BB rate, 2.83 FIP
So, what's so great about this guy?
Jack Flaherty was a two-way player in high school, probably better thought of as an athletic third base prospect until his senior season. At that point, his velocity ticked up, he began to show better feel for pitching, and it became clear his future was probably on the mound. The Cardinals popped him in the compensation round in 2014 with the 34th overall pick and went well over slot to keep him away from North Carolina.
If one could choose only one word to describe Flaherty as a pitcher, it might be 'precocious'. Two-way high school players going the pitching route are usually very raw coming out, and it takes them time to find their feel and identity as pitchers. See Ronnie Williams's blurb in part two for details on what that looks like. Flaherty, on the other hand, in his first full season of pro ball, not to mention his first season ever pitching full-time, looks closer to a college junior from a power conference school than the nineteen year old with little pitching experience he actually was. Not only was he not overwhelmed by full season ball, he put up outstanding numbers in the Midwest League, competing against players who were usually two, three, or often even four years older than him.
The raw stuff for Flaherty is good, but not the kind of knock your socks off dominant stuff you see from, say, the number one prospect on our list. It's a low 90s fastball, up to 94 at times, and it has nice sink when Flaherty keeps it down, but at no point will you watch him throw a heater, look up at the scoreboard, and let out a whistle at the radar gun reading. Nor do hitters walk away shaking their heads after facing him, wondering how anyone ever hits what he throws.
Rather, it's depth of his repertoire, as well as his feel for locating all his pitches, that really sets Flaherty apart. He legitimately throws four pitches, and every one of them might grade out at least average on a given day. The changeup and slider are his best offspeed offerings right now, with the change probably the most advanced. While the changeup might grade a 60 already most days, there are times Flaherty's slider outshines it. If he's going to end up with one plus-plus out pitch, my money would be on the slider. He throws a curve, as well, and it has its moments, but it's also too big and slow at times, and he can telegraph it by slowing his arm. It's the pitch that needs the most work, but it's entirely possible the curveball could end up at least an average offering as well.
If things come together for Flaherty, you could be looking at a 55 fastball, 60 change, 55-60 slider, 50 curveball profile, along with plus command of three of those pitches. He won't ever blow you away with pure velocity, but the combination of multiple pitches and feel could still be overwhelming for hitters to try and adjust to. Comping him to a pitcher like Zack Greinke seems absurd, given how unique Greinke's approach is, how experimental he is with his various offerings, but it's that kind of wide variety of pitches that Flaherty could be working with if it all comes together.
Physically, Flaherty is still an exceptional athlete, and his delivery is pretty good. He lifts with his elbow at the back of his arm swing, which I don't like, but still manages to have pretty good timing in terms of where his arm is when he starts his hip rotation. The balance and body control are both big pluses for him, which adds to the profile as a pitcher with too many options, and too much ability to harness those various options, for hitters to have much hope.
Flaherty will move up to High A Palm Beach to begin 2016, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him fast-tracked, particularly if he dominates there. Given the hitting environment in the FSL, which we've talked about here already, I could see him getting off to a fast start and being bumped up rather quickly to Double A, as both a challenge promotion and a shock to the system, forcing him to pitch in a much, much less friendly environment and hopefully driving home points he needs to work on. If that happens, he would be only two steps from the big leagues, barely two full seasons out of high school. Precocious seems apt, no?
Player Comp: Since Greinke is out, as I already stated, being an almost completely unique entity in his approach, I think of Todd Stottlemyre, as a pitcher with plus stuff pretty much across the board and four fully-formed pitches to attack hitters with. Stottlemyre, of course, struggled for a long time early in his career with his command; I see no similar struggles in either the short or long term with Flaherty.
Watch this short little video clip of Flaherty recording a strikeout for Peoria this year; it says a lot about where he already is as a pitcher. It's a simple two-pitch sequence, fastball then slider, but pay attention to the location. The fastball is perfectly placed, low and on the outside corner for a called strike two. The slider, then, is put in exactly the same spot, coming for that same corner, until it breaks away, down and out of the zone, getting the hitter to chase it for strike three. No hitter at any level is going to have much luck when the location is so perfect, with the slider looking identical to the fastball until it disappears. When pitchers talk about sequencing and setting up hitters, this is exactly what they're talking about.