Analysts say that the hardest jump in the entire minor leagues is from High-A to Double-A. However, the players who are talented and ready make it look easy. Who are those players in the Rays system? Today we’ll begin looking at the pitchers on the 2012 Charlotte Stone Crabs and figure out who we could see on the fast-track to the big leagues and who may need a little more time.
Albert Suarez, a Venezuelan signee who turned 23 in October, can’t be feeling great about himself right now. A 6’2″, 235 right-hander, Suarez began the season on the Rays’ 40-man roster before being designated for assignment after an inconsistent season. Suarez passed through waivers and remained in the organization. On the year for the Stone Crabs, Suarez went 5-9 with a 4.08 ERA, striking out just 4.4 batters per 9 innings to go along with a 2.1 BB/9 and a 0.8 HR/9 in 25 starts and 125 innings pitched. His groundball rate was also just above the league average at 43.0% according to Minor League Central. If there was one major positive for Suarez, it was that he simply stayed on the mound. Suarez’s 125 innings nearly matched his total of 134 innings from the previous four years as he dealt with manifold injuries including Tommy John Surgery back in 2009. However, Suarez’s stuff has been back to his pre-surgery level consistently. Suarez was once consistently at 92-94 MPH with his fastball but sees his velocity dip into the high-80’s at times now, and combining that with a lack of progress on his curveball and changeup means that Suarez is stalling as a prospect right now. Suarez does have good fastball control and solid late life but trying to be a starting pitcher going after hitters with just one pitch he can rely on is a losing proposition. Continued health is a good starting point for Suarez as he strives to get his development back on track, but he has a long way to go to renew the faith the Rays showed in him by adding him to their 40-man roster.
Romero continued to be enigmatic in 2012, but the Rays really like his potential. (Credit: Flickr user chriswish)
Lefty Enny Romero, who will turn 22 in January, could be the most polarizing pitcher in the Rays system, possessing upside as high as anyone but enough inconsistency even as he’s worked his way up to High-A to make you completely lose your mind. The youngest pitcher for Charlotte in 2012, Romero went 5-7 with a 3.93 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, a 5.4 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 23 starts, 2 relief appearances, and 126 innings pitched. Howwild was Romero’s season? He had one game where he twirled a rain-shortened 6 inning shutout, allowing just 1 hit and 1 walk while striking out 9 as he out-dueled Pirates top prospect Jameson Taillon– and he also had two games where he allowed 7 earned runs while walking 4 or more. No one doubts that Romero’s stuff is electric. An extremely projectable 6’3″, 165, Romero can make hitters look silly with a fastball that sits in the low-90’s and touches 97 MPH with great movement away from left-handed batters and a dynamic low-80’s curveball. Even his third offering, a changeup, has its moments where it’s a third plus offering for Romero. However, Romero fails to repeat his delivery, causing his release point on his secondary pitches to get of whack and even his fastball to look nothing like a strike. When Romero has everything working, good luck trying to hit him- but he beats himself far too often as he walks batter after batter. Romero managed a strikeout to walk ratio of at least 2 to 1 in just 10 of his 25 appearances, exactly the same number of times in which he walked 4 or more, and there’s nothing to like about that stat. The biggest thing for Romero may be for him to finally bulk up- maybe with added strength his delivery will click and everything will fall into place. You have to wonder why that process hasn’t really started yet but it’s clear that the Rays are taking things very slowly with Romero knowing just how good he has the chance to be. The Rays are certain that there’s an excellent big league starting pitcher somewhere inside Enny Romero, but at the same time he’s going to have his work cut out for him as he tries to turn his flashes of dominance into sustained performance, and who knows whether that will ever happen.
The Stone Crabs did not have a good season, going just 55-79 (.410). After a season like that, just one of their starting pitchers had a winning record on the season. Who was it? Surprisingly, it was right-hander Victor Mateo, 23. Mateo, a projectable 6’5″, 180, had a decent season for the Stone Crabs, going 6-5 with a 4.31 ERA, a 5.5 K/9, a 3.3 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 16 starts, 14 relief appearances, and 117 innings pitched. Mateo’s groundball rate was just 37.5%. Mateo stands out most for his physical description, but there are some other interesting parts of his game as well. Mateo doesn’t miss many bats with a fastball around 90 MPH with some run away from right-handed batters, and his high-70’s breaking ball forces some weak contact but doesn’t force many whiffs either. Mateo’s changeup, though, did show some good arm action and late fade to help Mateo manage a 40-24 strikeout to walk ratio to lefties compared to just 32-19 versus righties. Mateo’s prospect stock is really dependent on his projectability as much as anything else, and only when he fills out will the Rays get any indication that he might be any sort of prospect. Mateo’s changeup was a good sign in 2012, and the Rays will see if his overall repertoire and results pick up once he grows into his 6’5″ frame.
It was a trio of lefties who led the Stone Crabs in strikeouts per 9 innings. Two of them, Chris Rearick and Theron Geith, have since been traded. The third is C.J. Riefenhauser, the Rays’ 20th round pick in 2010, who will turn 23 next month. Riefenhauser had an uneven season between the Stone Crabs (23 appearances) and Double-A Montgomery Biscuits (9 appearances) in 2012 but definitely had his moments, going 8-9 with a 4.55 ERA, a 9.3 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 15 starts, 17 relief appearances, and 114.2 IP. Riefenhauser’s groundball rate was unfortunately just 32.2% between the two levels, the fifth-worst minimum 75 innings between the Florida State and Southern Leagues. He did have a nice showing in the Arizona Fall League, managing a 2.19 ERA and a 14-5 strikeout to walk ratio in 9 appearances and 12.1 innings pitched. Riefenhauser, 6’0″ and 180 pounds, throws a fastball around 90-91 MPH that lefties struggle to pick up, but he leaves it up in the zone too often, leading to his extreme flyball tendencies. It does has some late movement, but that didn’t stop hitters, especially righties from hitting it hard. Riefenhauser’s struggles against opposite-side batters were compounded by his lack of a consistent changeup to use against them, leading to a scary .302/.370/.515 line in 347 plate appearances by right-handers. But against lefties, Riefenhauser showed promise, combining deception on his fastball with a mid-70’s curveball with big break that befuddled lefties all season as he held them to just a .162/.225/.262 line with 57 strikeouts against 10 walks. After seeing a platoon split like that, the Rays are going to be tempted to convert Riefenhauser into a situational lefty role full-time, and with improved fastball command he could be a good fit for the role. The Rays don’t appear to give up on him versus right-handed batters yet, though, and will have him continue to work on his changeup. Riefenhauser has continued work to do, especially on his fastball command, but he has the stuff to give lefties fits and the ability to contribute in a middle relief role for the Rays over the next couple of seasons.
We’ll finish for today with another lefty, Grayson Garvin, who was the 9th of the Rays’ 10 first and supplemental picks in the 2011 MLB Draft at 59th overall coming out of David Price‘s alma mater, Vanderbilt. Garvin flashed dominance in his pro debut, striking out 10 in a May 3rd start, but following that start he began to struggle and the reason turned out to be an elbow injury that retired surgery (not Tommy John, likely a procedure to clear out bone chips or something along those lines) that ended his season in mid-June. Overall, Garvin went 2-4 with a 5.05 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 10 starts, a relief appearance, and 46.1 innings pitched. His groundball rate was a good 48.6%. What’s funny about Garvin’s strikeout and walk ratios are that his K rate drops to 5.9 per 9 innings if you take out the 10-strikeout game and his walk rate falls to 3.2 if you take out his last start before getting injured, so you can take all his numbers with a grain of salt given the small sample size. Garvin, a 6’6″, 225 lefty, attacks hitters with a low-90’s fastball that touches 94 MPH. When Garvin is at his best, he’s able to throw his fastball for strikes and get a good downward angle on it to command it down in the zone, but that’s something he’s needs to work on doing more often. Beyond his fastball, Garvin gets great arm action on his low-80’s changeup that he threw to right-handed batters quite effectively in 2012, but he needs work at getting more consistent fade on it to make it a real plus pitch. His third pitch is a slurvy breaking ball that he’s able to use as a serviceable third pitch, forcing contact on the ground, but it’s going to have to be cleaned up to work at higher levels. Garvin’s upside is not incredibly high, but if he can stay healthy and refine his breaking ball he could be a third or fourth starter type in the big leagues within a couple of years, and his floor, assuming he stays healthy, is an effective middle reliever who can get both righties and lefties out. Garvin had a rough time out in his first professional season, but if he can put his injury problems behind him he has the best chance of anyone on the Stone Crabs to contribute in the big leagues for the Rays and that could happen pretty fast.
Looking at five of the the Stone Crabs’ five primary starting pitchers from the 2012 season, we see an interesting combination of ability and upside, with players like Garvin and Riefenhauser potentially able to make an impact for the Rays sooner rather than later and Romero, Suarez, and Mateo featuring the upside to be productive pitchers themselves. Romero is the one pitcher in the Charlotte rotation who has star potential but the Rays have to be cautiously optimistic about the contributions they could be receiving from three or four of these pitchers over the next few years. We’ll finish off this series on the Stone Crabs next time with the rest of the Stone Crabs pitching staff.
For more of our scouting reports on the Rays’ minor league affiliates check out our Minor League Affiliates Analysis page here at RCG.