Ever since they began contending, the Rays have entered each season with a starting rotation among the best in baseball. But even with quality starters in place, it has taken a lighting-in-a-bottle performance from a top pitching prospect to take them over the top, with the best examples being David Price in 2008 and Matt Moore in 2011. Who will that player be this year? That is still quite up in the air, but the chances are as good as any that he will come from the pitchers who spent 2012 with the Rays’ Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. Blending great raw stuff with enough polish to make it this far made the Biscuits’ rotation among the most interesting in the system, and 2013 could be the year where everything falls into place and at least one of them can crack the major leagues and make an impact.
When a pitcher’s ERA nearly doubles from year to the next, that is never a good sign. It’s impossible to spin Jake Thompson‘s ERA going from 2.90 in 114.2 innings in 2011 to 5.56 in 124.2 IP in 2012 in a positive light. But while there’s plenty of reason for continued concern, he also made a good deal of progress and 2012 might even be looked back upon someday as the turning point in his career. Thompson, a 6’3″, 225 right-hander, was selected by the Rays in second round of the 2010 Draft out of Long Beach State (of course, Evan Longoria‘s alma mater) as the “safe pick” to balance out the riskier selections of high school products Josh Sale, Justin O’Conner, and Drew Vettleson in the first and supplemental rounds of that draft. Thompson’s upside wasn’t nearly as high as that trio, but he was expected to become a 4th or 5th starter or a middle reliever in the major leagues and make that happen pretty quickly. Things have not gone as planned. In 2012, Thompson made it to Double-A at just 22 years old, but it did not go well as he went 7-12 with a 5.56 ERA, a 6.5 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 25 starts and 124.2 innings pitched. While those numbers are ugly, though, they hide the progress that Thompson made over the course of the season. That becomes more apparent when comparing them to his 2011 season, when he went 5-7 with a 2.90 ERA, a 4.4 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 22 starts and 114.2 innings pitched at High-A Tampa.
Jake Thompson has always featured a very good repertoire, ranging from 92-94 MPH with his fastball, and also throwing a changeup that has shown flashes and a solid slider. But the issue for him has been controlling and command his pitches, especially his fastball. When Thompson is going strong, his fastball can hit as high as 97 MPH with run away from right-handed hitters. But unable to locate his fastball at that type of velocity consistently, Thompson started throwing his fastball more often in the 90-92 MPH range in 2011, helping him throw it for strikes but preventing him from missing many bats at all. His changeup features great arm action and late downward movement when he’s been able to get on top of it, but as he struggled to command it he began to abandon it and throw his fastball more and more often. And while even his slider has been overbearing in the high-80′s at times, Thompson was content to throw it more softly and use it as more of a groundball pitch because it was just too inconsistent. But while Thompson was able to ride his toned-down arsenal to solid results in 2011, that was never going to work for him against higher-level hitters. In 2012, Thompson suffered through a disastrous year, but at least he did so while working on his pitches instead of continuing to stand on thin ice with his diminished stuff. His fastball missed the zone more often, but also finally was able to force some swing-and-misses. He had some trouble with his changeup when it got too straight and got hit hard, but it also looked like a plus pitch at times, especially against left-handed batters. And even though his slider was enigmatic, he was able to put a lot of work in on it, and he could be on the verge of a breakthrough. Thompson needs continued work locating his pitches, and until that happens, his results could be ugly. But Thompson certainly had his moments, setting his career-high with a 7-strikeout game before breaking it with an 8-strikeout performance a few starts later, and his 4.38 FIP on the season suggests that while Thompson has a long way to go, he is making progress. As Thompson heads back to Double-A in 2013, he finally is starting to get his feeling for his pitches where it needs to be, and all of his frustration will be worthwhile if this can be the season that things finally start to come together for him.
Matt Buschmann is best known for something that has very little to do with his actual ability as a pitcher: he was David Price’s roommate when both were at Vanderbilt. But while the connection to the Rays’ ace certainly could not have hurt Buschmann’s chances of being acquired by the Rays last April for cash considerations and re-signed this offseason, the Rays have to be most excited about what Buschmann can do as a pitcher. Buschmann, a 6’3″, 210 right-hander who turned 29 in February, is coming off a season that saw him go 7-8 with a 3.98 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 in 24 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 151.1 innings pitched, with all but 2 starts coming with the Biscuits. His groundball rate was also an impressive 48.7% per Minor League Central. But why does any of this matter? He was a 28 year old playing against younger competition!
The truth is that there’s very little chance that Buschmann could possibly put up a season like that in the major leagues. However, while his stats may be somewhat of a mirage, his stuff is real. Buschmann works primarily with a sinker in the 88-90 MPH range that he did an excellent job commanding down in the zone in 2012, and his money pitch is a sharp low-80′s slider that he used to get most of his strikeouts. Buschmann also threw a decent changeup, although it’s quite a bit behind his other two pitches and it may never develop at this point. Buschmann’s sinker-slider combination was overpowering against right-handed batters as he held them to just a .203/.264/.317 line with 72 strikeouts against just 20 walks, and while his performance versus lefties was a great deal worse (.320/.397/.420 with a 39-28 strikeout to walk ratio), Buschmann clearly has the type of arsenal could be very effective in a middle relief role against right-handed hitters, especially considering his fastball velocity might pick up. Buschmann will head to Triple-A Durham and the Rays will see if they can improve his changeup to the point where he’ll have a chance to start (after all, the changeup is an emphasis of their organization), but more likely Buschmann will be converted to a reliever, a role in which he has the ability to find quite a bit of success. At 29 years old, Matt Buschmann is not really a prospect. But he’s at an age where a productive career as a big league middle reliever could be getting started, and that’s all the Rays are asking Buschmann to do.
Somewhere inside Joseph Cruz, all the ability is still there. Just two years ago, Cruz went 13-6 with a 2.85 ERA and a 131-39 strikeout to walk ratio in 142 IP at High-A Charlotte. And while the last two years have been disastrous, the Rays will keep waiting hoping that Cruz can somehow get back on track. Cruz, 24, is a projectable 6’4″, 190 with a fastball that can be as impressive as any in the system when he’s right. But the last two years almost could not have been worse. Cruz managed just a 6.27 ERA in 74.2 IP in 2011, and 2012 was not much better as he went 6-6 with a 4.60 ERA, a 7.4 K/9, a 6.2 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 15 starts, 3 relief appearances, and 78.1 innings pitched. Both seasons were derailed by shoulder injuries, with Cruz missing from June to August of 2011 after surgery on his shoulder and then watching his season end in July of 2012 when he heard two pops in his shoulder and fell to his knees on the mound before departing from the game. But when he has been healthy, Cruz continues to show flashes. In a game on May 23rd, Cruz showed just how good he can be as he went neck-and-neck with Mariners top prospect Danny Hultzen, going 6 innings allowing just 1 hit, striking out 8 while walking 2, in a game the Biscuits won 2-1 in 12 innings. While his 2012 numbers were bad, take out three games where Cruz walked 6 or more batters and he actually managed a much more reasonable if far from acceptable 4.8 BB/9. And after the Biscuits moved Cruz to the bullpen for his final three appearances before his injury, he allowed just 1 hit in 4.1 innings, striking out 6 while walking none.
When healthy, Cruz’s fastball stays in the 92-93 MPH range and touches as high as 96 MPH with some movement away from right-handed hitters. He complements it with a solid curveball in the low-70′s and a halfway-decent changeup. Cruz’s current arsenal and injury issues severely limit his upside. However, his career is far from over and if Cruz can simply stay on the mound, he could have considerable potential out of the bullpen. The Rays continued to be tantalized by Cruz’s ability even as they have watched him fight through seemingly unremitting frustration the last two years, and the Rays hope that 2013 is the season that he stays healthy and finally gets himself back on track.
If not for injuries, Alex Colome would have finished the 2012 season in the Rays’ bullpen and could have made quite an impact. Although he didn’t make his Triple-A debut until August, Marc Topkin reported that the Rays talked about calling Colome up and pairing him with Chris Archer to give them two dynamic up-and-coming right-handers with the ability to be weapons in short or long relief. Instead, Colome saw his season end from a lat strain in his right throwing shoulder and 2013 will be the season where he looks to crack the Rays’ MLB roster. Signed by the Rays as a 17 year old out of the Dominican Republic back in 2007, Colome had a big season primarily at Double-A Montgomery for the Rays in 2012, going 8-4 with a 3.44 ERA, an 8.8 K/9, a 4.2 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 17 starts and 91.2 IP. Everything but his last three starts came with the Biscuits. Colome’s groundball rate was a nice 44.5% and he was especially good against right-handed batters, holding them to .219/.303/.299 line.
Colome, a 24 year old 6’2″, 195 right-hander, has wowed evaluators for years with his electric arsenal. Colome’s fastball consistently hits the mid-90′s, topping out as high as 97 MPH, and when he’s able to get on top of it, it features great sink and late bite. He pairs it with a sharp 11-to-5 curveball that can be overpowering when he can sell it as a strike and he also throws a decent mid-80′s slider. But the most intriguing part of Colome’s repertoire at this point may be his changeup, a pitch that Colome still needs to do a better job working into his arsenal but that also features the same arm slot as his fastball before featuring great late sink when he has it right. The root of Colome’s inconsistency in his career has been a tendency to overthrow his pitches as he focuses too much on strikeouts, keeping his fastball up in the zone too much and making his curveball head into the dirt before the hitter even thinks about swinging. At the same time, though, he has much better baseline control than a pitcher like Alex Torres even if his command comes and goes (his BB/9 has never gotten above 4.2 the last four years) and Colome’s feel for pitching continues to get better and a shift in his mentality on the mound could make all the difference. Colome got hit hard in big league camp for the Rays this year, allowing 8 runs, 5 earned, on 9 hits and 4 walks in 4.2 innings, striking out just 1, and that highlights how getting his control and command better on a consistent basis will be the key to figuring out his future role. However, with a pair of plus pitches in his fastball and curveball, another one coming along smoothly in his changeup, and a decent fourth pitch in his slider, the Rays are excited to see what Colome can do and Colome’s upside ranks up there with any of the Rays’ pitching prospects anywhere the major leagues. Colome has what it takes to be a number two starter at best and a fireballing late-inning reliever at worst, and as he begins his first full season at Triple-A in 2013, he enters a key crossroads that will go a long way at determining whether his future lies in the rotation or the bullpen.
Colome is a pitcher who has ranked among the Rays’ best pitching prospects for years at this point, but he’s far from alone among the Biscuits pitchers with the ability to make an impact in the major leagues for the Rays over the next couple of seasons. Buschmann isn’t really a prospect but still could turn into an excellent low-profile pickup for the Rays as an impact reliever in the major leagues and Thompson and Cruz have both fallen off as prospects but still have electric and salvageable arms. The Rays have become renowned throughout baseball for their ability to develop frontline pitching prospects, but the value of the lesser prospects that can still contribute for the Rays in the near future can’t be understated. With Colome at the forefront and the others trailing not too far behind, the pitchers from the 2012 Montgomery Biscuits could be playing a big role in the Rays’ pitching staff before we know it. We’ll continue next time with more interesting pitchers from the Biscuits’ 2012 roster.
For more of our analysis of the Rays prospects at each level of their system, check out our Minor League Affiliates Analysis page here at RCG.