07/07/05 1:32 PM ET
Futures: U.S. pitchers on fast track
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
Of the 10 talented arms on the staff, six have already received promotions to a higher level. Two pitchers -- Justin Verlander to the big leagues and James Johnson to Double-A Erie -- moved up for one start, bringing the total moves up the ladder to eight. Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Bobby Jenks were all originally on the roster, but had to be replaced because, you guessed it, they were promoted to the big leagues.
Just who are these pitchers on the go? Lets take a look.
Thomas Bowyer, P, Rochester (Twins, Triple-A)
Originally drafted out of high school by the Twins as a starter (20th round, 1999), Bowyer began making the transition to the bullpen in 2002 in the Midwest League.
His career has taken off since. He spent all of 2003 and part of 2004 in the Florida State League before getting bumped to Double-A for most of last season, keeping hitters to a .185 combined batting average against.
On the 40-man roster, the 23-year-old Bowyer was challenged with a move to Triple-A and he's responded. Cranking his fastball up to 99 miles per hour, the right-hander leads the International League with 18 saves and has a 1.15 ERA in 47 innings, striking out 64. The league is hitting just .152 against him.
Thomas Diamond, P, Round Rock (Rangers, Double-A)
Diamond was taken No. 10 overall in the 2004 draft with the hopes he'd be able to move quickly through the Rangers' system. He hasn't disappointed.
After holding California League hitters to a .191 average, striking out 101 in 81 1/3 innings and going 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA, Diamond was bumped up to Double-A Frisco in late June.
He seems to like the Texas League as well, giving up three earned runs and striking out 11 in his first 11 innings. After a bumpy debut, he clearly made some adjustments and tossed seven stellar innings for his first Double-A victory.
"We're very pleased with his progress," Rangers director of Minor League operations John Lombardo said. "He's made very quick adjustments, not only to have success at the lower levels, but translating to Double-A as well. It's a testament to his hard work." "His third pitch was lagging behind the other two pitches, but it's really come on of late. He's become a more complete pitcher than just relying on what worked for him in college."
Zach Jackson, P, New Hampshire (Blue Jays, Double-A)
Jackson is another college pitcher who was drafted largely because of his ability to advance quickly.
The left-hander went 8-1 with a 2.88 ERA, striking out 48 and walking just six in 59 1/3 Florida State League innings before getting moved up to Double-A. The Eastern League hasn't been as kind, but the Texas A&M product is still ahead of the curve, one that could land him at another level before all is said and done in 2005.
"He's handled the jumps pretty well," Blue Jays farm director Dick Scott said. "It's not often you see a kid go from college to Single-A to Double-A so quickly, and we hope to see him in Triple-A by the end of the year. He told us that he wanted to move through the system as fast as possible, and he's earned it so far.
"Zach is one of those kids with a great arm, but not overpowering. He knows how to pitch and is a great competitor. He has a fantastic drive inside of him."
James Johnson, P, Frederick (Orioles, Class A Advanced)
While many members of this pitching staff are on the fast track, Johnson has taken a little more time to develop. But it's looking like he was well worth the wait for the Orioles.
The O's took the 6-foot-5 Johnson out of high school in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, and he's been brought along very slowly. He didn't hit full-season ball until 2004, but he showed glimpses of a more complete product in Delmarva.
That earned him a move up to Class A Advanced Frederick, where things have really started to click for Johnson. The Carolina League is hitting just .223 against him, and he's struck out 106 in 98 innings using a low-90s fastball with hard sink and a good slider. He even was brought up to Double-A Bowie for a spot start and opened many eyes with seven shutout innings there.
"The first couple of years, he came along slowly, but last year and this year, he's made a lot of gains with his physical maturity that's allowed him to do a lot more as a pitcher," Orioles director of Minor League operations David Stockstill said. "The difficult part [with pitchers like Johnson] is you don't know which ones are going to click, so you have to show patience. James is one who's really blossomed for us."
Chris Lambert, P, Springfield (Cardinals, Double-A)
Lambert was a hockey star coming out of high school but got a scholarship to Boston College after showing a plus fastball at a showcase event. His last season at BC was a bit uneven, but the Cards still saw a lot of untapped potential in his strong right arm and took him 19th overall in the 2004 draft.
It's looking like they made a good call. He went 7-1 with a 2.63 ERA in 10 starts for Palm Beach in the Florida State League to earn a bump up to Springfield. The Texas League has been a little bit more of a challenge, but the Cardinals think his stuff will play just fine at the higher levels.
"Lambert's still getting adjusted to Double-A," said John Vuch, the Cardinals' manager of baseball information and assistant director of player development. "He's got above average velocity and shows a good curve and change at times. Consistency and command of his breaking pitch and changeup are the keys to his progress. When they're on, he could be effective at any level.
"For him to be pitching at Double-A in his first full season as a professional is good progress. I think once he exhibits better command of his other pitches, he'll begin to have more consistent success at Springfield as he did at Palm Beach."
Anthony Lerew, P, Richmond (Braves, Triple-A)
After a rough April, the Braves prospect had a 3.03 ERA in May and 1.80 ERA in June, earning a promotion up to Triple-A. The 22-year-old, who is turning out to be quite a draf bargain (11th round, 2001), hasn't skipped a beat, posting a 2.75 ERA and holding hitters to a .171 average in his first three starts with Richmond.
Lerew has shown some increased velocity over the past year, touching 97 mph last year in Myrtle Beach. He's got a plus changeup when it's on, and he throws a slider as well. The Braves added him to the 40-man roster last offseason, which speaks volumes for an organization that cultivates young pitching like the Braves do.
Paul Maholm, P, Altoona (Pirates, Double-A)
Maholm was off to a terrific start in his first full season in 2004 when he was hit in the face by a line drive in May. Showing the toughness that might be his greatest trait, Maholm came back in August, but then had to shut it down when he needed additional surgery.
He's come back full force all the way in Double-A, with a 3.01 ERA in 71 2/3 innings, holding Eastern League hitters to a .225 average. The lefty from Mississippi State has used four solid-average Major League pitches -- fastball, curve, slider and changeup -- to strike out 65. But it's not his stuff that draws the highest praise from the organization.
"What makes him special and sets him apart from other good pitchers is his makeup, his mental toughness, his ability to make adjustments, his ability to handle pressure, his focus and concentration," Pirates farm director Brian Graham said. "He's very similar to Zach Duke on the mound. They're special kids when it comes to their makeup.
"What Paul needs is experience. His stuff is good, his ability to pitch is good. When he gains that necessary experience, he'll be ready for the big leagues."
Troy Patton, P, Salem (Astros, Class A Advanced)
Patton lasted until the ninth round of the 2004 draft because most thought the Magnolia, Texas, native was headed to the University of Texas. But the hometown Astros lured him away with the highest ninth-round bonus in draft history.
It appears to be money well spent. The left-hander posted a 1.93 ERA and struck out 32 in 28 innings in his debut last summer, and he hasn't let up since. Patton pitched shutout ball over five consecutive starts for Lexington (32 consecutive scoreless innings) and got bumped up to Salem recently with a 1.94 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings. Now he'll try his hand in the Carolina League, all at the ripe old age of 19.
Justin Verlander, P, Erie (Tigers, Double-A)
Verlander has been in the news as much as any prospect of late due to his one-start callup to the big leagues. And while he took the loss and looked shaky in that first inning, he certainly earned kudos for settling down some after yielding three runs to the Indians in his first big league frame.
There's never been a question about Verlander's arm strength. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2004 draft throws consistently in the mid-to-upper 90s. It's always been a question of command and secondary pitches.
He's shown tremendous progress on both fronts. He's still ranked second in the Florida State League with 104 strikeouts even though he got promoted to Double-A Erie in the middle of June. That the 104 K's came in just 86 innings shouldn't come as a surprise; that he walked just 19 might.
And he's continued that dominance in the Eastern League , tossing 15 scoreless innings and yielding just five hits (.098 average) and three walks while whiffing 18. Depending on how the rotation works out, he's got to be the front-runner to start the game for the U.S. squad in the big-league club's ballpark.
Joel Zumaya, P, Erie (Tigers, Double-A)
If Verlander can't start, maybe Zumaya should. The 20-year-old throws as hard as anyone, Verlander included, using the hard heat to climb all the way to Erie last year as a teenager.
Then he learned a valuable lesson: You cannot live on a fastball alone if you want to survive as a starting pitcher at the higher levels. Other young flame-throwers might be more stubborn, but Zumaya seemingly has embraced the need to be more complete.
The results have been outstanding, to say the least. Zumaya is seventh in the Eastern League with his 2.90 ERA and his 137 strikeouts in 102 1/3 innings is second best in all of the Minor Leagues (the Cubs' Rich Hill had 139 entering play on July 6).
He's gotten better as the season has progressed, posting a 0.78 ERA in June in which he walked just nine and struck out 43 in 34 2/3 innings. Overall, the Eastern League is managing a paltry .193 average against Zumaya.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.