Evaluating the 2012 Bowling Green Hot Rods Part 5

To finish our look at a team in the Hot Rods filled with as much promise as any Rays affiliate, we finish with a group of sleepers: the bullpen. A-ball relievers usually don’t have the highest upside, but the six Hot Rods relievers we’ll discuss today were on average just half a year older than their starting pitchers and they deserve some interest in their own right.

Trevor Shull, who turned 22 in August, was the Rays’ 18th round pick in 2008 and has become a waiting game for the Rays for the last five years. They’re still waiting. In 2012 for the Hot Rods, Shull went 5-7 with a 5.05 ERA, a 6.0 K/9, a 5.3 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 13 starts, 15 relief appearances, and 82 innings pitched. Shull remains a 6’4″, 200 right-hander never really growing into his frame as of now and failing to get his fastball velocity up to the level the Rays thought he would be at by this point in his career. Shull’s fastball hits just the high-80′s at this point, and while he does get good sink on it, as evidenced by his great HR/9 and his 47.7% groundball rate in 2012 per Minor League Central, and has never been a swing-and-miss pitch and his secondary pitches have never developed as good enough offerings for Shull to overcome that. Shull throws a changeup and a curveball, with the changeup occasionally flashing plus with good arm action and nice sink, but he fails to command it consistently, sometimes leaving it up in the zone and hittable and at other times failing to make it look anything like a strike. The curveball has its moments but gets slurvy far too often without Shull being able to control it either, and that has led to Shull being in the frustrating position of being a right-handed pitcher who’s more effective against left-handed batters. Shull still has promise- he’s doing fine on the age relative to level curve and he still has plenty of room to grow as a pitcher- but it seems less and less likely that he’s ever going to amount to anything as a pitcher after he has made so little progress so far. Shull will look to defy the odds as his professional career continues.

Lefty Jacob Partridge, who’ll turn 22 this month, was drafted in the same round as Shull one year later, in the 18th round of the 2009 MLB Draft, and has shown significantly more progress the last few years. Partridge was the Hot Rods’ long relief ace in 2012, going 5-1 with a 2.51 ERA, an 8.7 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 3 starts, 31 relief appearances, and 96.2 innings pitched. Partridge, 6’3″, 200, gets his fastball up into the low-90′s with enough late life to miss some bats and force weak contact, although too much of it in the air as he struggles to command it. Where Partridge has most progressed since signing is his changeup, which has evolved into a weapon for him against right-handed batters thanks to late action that makes the bottom fall out of it, but Partridge found himself relying on it too much against righties as his fastball didn’t have nearly as much deception against opposite-side hitters and hitters were able to lay off of it as they saw it more. Partridge also needs to figure out how to throw his changeup for strikes as opposed to simply using it for a chase offering. Partridge’s third pitch, a slider, also shows promise, although Partridge doesn’t get enough break on it consistently and uses it more as more of a groundball pitch. Partridge didn’t start in 2012, but he threw 96.2 innings, 6th on the team after the five starters, and after a promising season he could be placed into a starting role next season at High-A Charlotte. Partridge’s upside is likely a mid-rotation starter, but he continues to progress as a pitcher and we’ll see just how far he can go.

Andrew Bellatti, who turned 21 in August, was drafted 6 rounds ahead of Partridge in the 2009 MLB Draft and paired with Partridge to give Bowling Green a great left-right relief combo. Bellatti went 7-3 with a 2.97 ERA, a 9.8 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 39 relief appearances, 1 starts, and 91 innings pitched. Unlike Shull and Partridge, Bellatti isn’t a prospect with all that much projection at 6’1″, 170, but he still has an interesting arsenal. His fastball stays around 90 MPH, and Bellatti is able to throw it for a lot of strikes, and like another Rays pitcher who’s 6’1″, Jeremy Hellickson, Bellatti gets good late movement and was able to force a lot of weak contact in the air in 2012. The question is whether that will persist. His groundball rate was an alarmingly bad 29.6% in 2012, the worst rate in the Midwest League minimum 50 innigs pitched, certainly not a good sign. With fastball velocity that isn’t that great, Bellatti has to improve his fastball command and gets his groundball rate up into reasonable levels. The Hellickson comps end with the fastball as Bellatti’s best pitch is not a changeup but a slider, a pitch that flashes plus with tight late break and is particularly effective against right-handed batters but also works against lefties. Bellatti gets into trouble when he tries to overthrow it and ends up losing command of it and leaving it up in the zone. His command of it is going to be even more important moving forward as his fastball will continue to play down and it will harder for Bellatti to sell it, necessitating him to make his slider a more consistent pitch for it to continue being effective. Bellatti does throw a changeup, but he has never gotten ahold of it and can’t throw it for strikes on a regular basis. Even though he gave the Hot Rods length and is a year younger than the two guys above, Bellatti’s upside appears to be in a relief role, but with his sharp slider he has a chance to be solid bullpen arm for the Rays someday even without a premium fastball if he can continue improving his repertoire.

The Rays had seven players test positive for various drugs, some recreational and others performance-enhancing, in 2012 and receive 50-game suspension from Minor League Baseball. Four of them remain in the organization. Three of them being retained make sense- Tim Beckham, Josh Sale, and Ryan Brett are all top prospects for the Rays, and although their suspensions cannot exactly inspire confidence, you hope that they’ll be able to overcome their lapse in judgement and get back on track. But the surprise was the fourth player who the Rays kept in the fold: right-hander Charlie Cononie. Cononie, who will turn 24 in February, was the Rays’ 24th round pick in 2011 and put up intriguing numbers in 2012. Cononie managed a 2-4 record with a 4.20 ERA, a 10.4 K/9, a 6.8 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 34 relief appearances and 60 innings pitched. Cononie, a big 6’7″, 210, apparently has enough potential for the Rays to give him a second chance. Cononie works primarily with a two-seam fastball in the 92-94 MPH range with heavy sink at its best and big run, leading to Cononie’s outstanding 63.1% groundball rate on the season but also a ton of his walks as its big movement made him struggle mightily to control it even as he kept it down well. His arm slot varies too often, giving his fastball all sorts of movement, including natural late cut at times, but making controlling it just even harder. Cononie pairs his fastball with a huge 11-to-5 breaking ball with outstanding depth that was a true swing-and-miss pitch when Cononie was able to sell it. Cononie couldn’t throw it for a strike and basically had to throw it off his fastball, a losing proposition because hitters assumed quite often that Cononie could not throw his fastball for a strike and were often proved right. Cononie also throws a changeup, yet another pitch that he can’t throw for a strike. Cononie’s size and arsenal make him interesting, but he has to find control- of both his life and of his arsenal- in order to be any sort of prospect.

Austin Hubbard, 24, was the Rays’ 14th round pick in 2010 and regressed in his second go-around with the Hot Rods in 2012 but also showed signs of progress. Hubbard went 2-6 in 2012 with a 4.11 ERA, an 11.4 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 49 relief appearances and 57 innings pitched. Hubbard, a 6’2″, 206 right-hander, touches 93 MPH with his fastball but usually stays right around 90 MPH with the pitch. He controls it decently but it’s simply nothing special. Hubbard’s money pitch and the reason he has any potential at all is his low-80′s slider, which is a true swing-and-miss offering but only when Hubbard can establish his fastball, something he did a solid job of doing in 2012 but it’s questionable whether he can do that as he progresses through the minors. One swing-and-miss offering is nice, but Hubbard has to improve his fastball to have any pro prospects.

McEachern showed flashes in 2012, striking out over a batter per inning, but there is plenty of more work still to be done. (Credit: Flickr user Neil Alan Ralson)

And the last prospect we’ll cover on the 2012 Bowling Green Hot Rods is right-hander Jason McEachern, who turned 22 in October and was the Rays’ 13th round pick back in 2008. McEachern had nice results overall in  2012, going 2-2 with a 2.80 ERA, a 10.0 K/9, a 4.6 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 28 relief appearances and 61 innings pitched. McEachern, 6’2″, 206, pitches out of a deceptive delivery and throws a fastball in the low-90′s with late life that shows an ability to be a swing-and-miss offering but is a pitch that McEachern struggles to both command and control. He also throws a curveball and changeup, with the curveball being more promising as McEachern throws it out of the same arm slot as his fastball with big 11-to-5 break, while his changeup has its moments but has never developed the consistency that the Rays would like to see. Between his deception being an advantage to right-hand hitters and a weakness to lefty hitters and the fact that his curveball is so much better than his changeup right now, McEachern’s strikeout to walk ratio was exponentially better against righties than lefties, coming in at 45-12 compared to just 23-19. You know the Rays like McEachern because they sent him to Bowling Green at just 19 years old in 2009, but this was his third year at the level- except for a 2010 stint at Short Season-A Hudson Valley- and he has to find a way to take the next step as a pitcher. It looks like McEachern’s future will be in relief, but his upside in that role remains high and the Rays hope something can click for him moving forward.

The story of this group was projectable talents with plenty of work still to do but also interesting potential that gives them a chance to be interesting prospects if they can polish up their arsenals and turn their raw ability and consistent performance as they move up the minor league ranks. They were the perfect way to end our evaluation of the Hot Rods, a team that had as much promise as any Rays affiliate but also an enigmatic element starting with their four drug suspensions and continuing with plenty of tools that remain works in progress. This could be a major boom-or-bust group for the Rays system moving forward, but with players like Josh Sale, Jake Hager, Todd Glaesmann, Parker Markel, Tyler Goeddel, and Felipe Rivero, we could also be looking back at this team as where it all started for major pieces of the Rays future. The Rays have to nervous about what’s going to happen these Hot Rods moving forward, but it can be a nervous excitement as they know the upside of this team is sky-high and with added maturity on and off the field, they just might get there.

For all our analysis on the Hot Rods and the Rays’ other minor league affiliates, check out our Minor League Affiliates Analysis page here at RCG.

Topics: Bowling Green Hot Rods, Charlie Cononie, Jacob Partridge, Jason McEachern, Tampa Bay Rays, Trevor Shull

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