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Tampa Bay Rays: Blake Snell, A Familiar Type of Pitching Prospect

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Luckily for the Tampa Bay Rays, their pipeline of pitching prospects did not run thin entering this season. Nate Karns was an older prospect, but one with tremendous stuff. Alex Colome had shown flashes for years and his opportunity had finally come. Matt Andriese was a step back from that pair, but even he showed the arsenal, command, and deception to be an effective big league starting pitcher. The Rays still had starting depth, and that proved so critical when the injuries struck.

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However there is something missing when we discuss those three pitchers: the wow factor. Karns is 27, Colome is 26, and Andriese is 25. Colome was ranked as a top 100 prospect in baseball after the 2009 season, but that was the only time that any of them was recognized as a top pitching prospect. They had their flaws–there were reasons why they were breaking into the big leagues at relatively advanced ages– and that limited what they could do. Maybe Karns or Colome can become a topflight starting pitcher, but given their problems this late in their careers, the chances of them finding the consistency to be great are quite low.

Karns, Colome, and Andriese are fine pitchers and the Rays are happy to have them. The issue, though, is that they were at the top of the list for upper-level Tampa Bay Rays pitching prospects. Behind them, we can talk about Enny Romero, Dylan Floro, Jaime Schultz, Grayson Garvin, Andrew Bellatti, Jared Mortensen, and Austin Pruitt. However, the trio of Romero, Schultz, and Garvin combine their intriguing stuff with command and/or injury problems while the others simply have much lower upsides. Where have the top Rays pitching prospects gone?

Blake Snell is the one pitcher who you can look at and see something more exhilarating. He is 22 years old, a year and four months younger than everyone else we have mentioned. He hasn’t been acknowledged as a top 100 prospect either, mostly because of his problems with command. Like the others, he has electric stuff when he can command it, throwing a fastball that can reach the mid-90’s and two secondary pitches that show potential in his curveball and changeup. The difference for him is that lately everything has actually been clicking.

Snell’s numbers to begin the season barely make any sense. In 7 outings and 40 innings pitched, he is 5-0 with a 0.00 ERA. Yes, he has not yet allowed a run. He has given up 16 hits, just 3.6 per 9 innings, and 16 walks while striking out 48. The 3.6 BB/9 is the ugliest number we have mentioned, but more than half of his walks came in just two starts. Otherwise, he has managed just 2.1 walks per 9, a huge step in the right direction for a pitcher with a 4.7 BB/9 as a professional.

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Of course, we can’t just ignore the starts where he didn’t have his control. Snell has always been a pitcher who can dazzle for a while before it all unravels. Even in 2013, when he walked 6.6 batters per 9 innings for the season, Snell struck out 10 batters without a walk in one game and struck out 9 without a free pass in another. It isn’t a bad thing for pitchers’ performances to fluctuate–we witness the same thing happening with Chris Archer in the major leagues–but the most important question is how good a pitcher will be on an average night. Scouts have said for a while that Snell projects to be a number three starter on a typical evening.

Yet now, as we see Snell dominating, we can wonder whether the evaluators were wrong. Snell won’t locate his pitches well every single start, but maybe he has taken enough of a step forward that a future as a number two starter or an ace is more realistic. We can make the comparison to Matt Moore, who was another lefty with control problems before suddenly he moved past them. Of course, Moore has ended up walking 4.3 batters per 9 in the majors, but he did enough to become one of the top two prospects in baseball and earn Cy Young votes.

That comparison is forced–Moore was a top 50 prospect as early as following the 2009 season while Snell has never earned such recognition. There are clear reasons why Snell is well behind Moore in the eyes of evaluators: his breaking ball and changeup are worse and he simply hasn’t blown past hitters to the same extent. But even if it is crazy, it means something that the similarities are popping into our heads. No one would dare compare Archer with a 27-year-old prospect, but Snell and Moore isn’t quite as irrational. You don’t have to be so delusional to see it.

With all of this mind, Tampa Bay Rays fans should watch Blake Snell with cautious optimism. He probably isn’t the next Rays pitching prospect to burst onto the scene, but he is the first one in a while who still had a chance to get there as he reached Double-A. Maybe he will never look anywhere near this good again, but it takes a lot of talent to deliver a seven-start stretch like that at all. Snell is a step up from the other pitchers we have seen of late for the Rays, and the coming years will tell us just how much better he truly is.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays MiLB Recap: A Biscuits Twinbill To Remember

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