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Newman’s Own: Best Relief Pitchers Of 2012

Seeing prospects in person is my passion. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to visit parks in five different leagues — collecting information and video on 200 legitimate prospects or more. The lists released over the next few weeks will highlight the best prospects I’ve seen in person at each position during the 2012 season. The rankings will be adjusted based on projected position at the major league level, not present position (in italics if ranking includes position shift). After writing the first three lists, I realized there’s really no way to keep statistical information out of the equation completely and focus on scouting/projection alone. This has caused me to hedge my bets a bit on high ceiling talents and focus more on the complete player. Additionally, understand this is not meant to be a complete list of the best prospects at each position across all of Minor League Baseball, but the best of what I’ve seen.

Previous Rankings:
The Catchers
The First Basemen
The Second Basemen
The Third Basemen
The Shortstops
The Corner Outfielders
The Center Fielders

1. Domingo Tapia, New York Mets

With a fastball up to 99 MPH, Tapia had electric raw stuff on par with the best pitchers scouted in 2012. At present, I struggle to see how his low 3/4 arm slot will allow for a consistent breaking ball. This leaves his ultimate role a little murky. However, his sinking fastball is dominant and changeup was better than I was expecting. Plus, one has no choice but to love his size and the chance his ground ball tendencies result in a quality starting pitcher. This ranking isn’t to say I’m 100% sure Tapia IS a reliever in the end, only that his current profile fits a high leverage reliever role to a tee.

Read my previous piece on Domingo Tapia

2. J.R. Graham, Atlanta Braves

Back in April, Graham was the best Braves prospect on the field during their “Braves All-Stars vs. Future Stars” game. He surrendered three earned in a single inning of work, but his 95-96 MPH fastball and 83-85 MPH slider which flashed above average-to-plus left a strong impression. In his short stint, Graham profiled as high leverage relief arm. Like Tapia, Graham may very well wind up in a big league rotation. However, his so-so strikeout totals in 2012 and my not seeing a third offering forces me to err on the side of caution.

Read my previous piece about “Baby Braves” including J.R. Graham

3. Robbie Ross, Texas Rangers

My first Robbie Ross sighting was with the Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League. I remember being a bit underwhelmed at the time, but Ross’ heavy sinker and ability to throw strikes grew on me throughout the season as I continued to scout more highly touted prospect present as worse pitchers. In April, I scouted Ross against the Dodgers in Arizona as he competed for a bullpen role. His velocity had stabilized at 91 MPH and he was throwing many more sliders than I had seen previously. This translated to a ground ball rate of 62.4% as a rookie. He was so good, one is now forced to wonder whether a move back to the rotation will occur at some point.

Read my previous piece on Robbie Ross.

4. Brad Boxberger, San Diego Padres

In April, I scouted Boxberger as an added bonus as I hopped off the plane, secured the rental car and headed straight to Peoria. In person, I found myself impressed with his three-pitch arsenal including a 91-93 MPH fastball, changeup and cutter/slider. In this appearance, Boxberger threw all of his pitches for strikes, but his command collapsed in his big league debut to the tune of 5.86 BB/9. I once thought Boxberger would be the closer of the future in San Diego, but the walks have scared me off of that stance.

5. Tanner Scheppers, Texas Rangers

Power stuff is a great starting point for any relief pitcher, but Scheppers’ BABIP’s at the upper levels are a glowing reminder that flat fastballs left up in the strike zone will be hit hard regardless of velocity. One might look at his .390 BABIP and 1.67 HR/9 rates in 32 1/3 innings of big league work and shrug it off due to small sample size. However, his 2010-2012 BABIP’s at the Triple-A level were .374, .383 and .322 respectively. Does Scheppers miss bats? Yes. Did he limit his walks in 2012 in a way he hadn’t before? Yes. Has he figured out how to stop being hit too hard for a pitcher with his raw stuff? Not yet. With Scheppers turning 26 in January, My concern is that there’s little room for improvement in this area.

6. Steven Ames, Los Angeles Dodgers

The anti-Scheppers, I’ve spent the past two seasons watching Ames repeatedly neuter the opposition with less velocity than all of his bullpen mates in Double-A Chattanooga. Maybe he presents as less impressive after watching the Dodgers flaunt a seemingly endless reserve of 95+ bullpen arms, but Ames’ stuff has never matched the results. In the end, maybe they don’t need to. With a sinking fastball which can touch 92 MPH, Ames combines excellent command with strong ground ball tendencies. And while the swings-and-misses may dry up at the big league level, he still profiles as a high floor bullpen arm.

7. Chris Withrow, Los Angeles Dodgers

The soon-to-be 24-year old Chris Withrow has stagnated in Double-A and may return to Chattanooga for a fifth time in 2013 (No, that is not a typo). Command has always been Withrow’s biggest hindrance and last season was no different. In 345 2/3 innings, Withrow has average 5.0 BB/9 in the Southern League. Even more concerning is those rates are trending downward from 4.0 in 2009 to 5.4 in 2012. 98 MPH fastballs don’t grow on trees, so Withrow will continue to try and work things out at the minor league level. However, it might be time for a change of scenery at this point as the Dodgers probably don’t want to expose him to Triple-A pitching given his walk rates, but Chattanooga doesn’t seem to be doing him much good either.

8. Jose Dominguez, Los Angeles Dodgers

When Dominguez took the mound in Chattanooga, I was down the first base lining collecting video on a number of Jackson hitters. His first fastball caused me to do a double take and hustle back behind home plate for some velocity readings. At 95-97 MPH, Dominguez had excellent velocity and mixed in a diving changeup which fell off the table. At this point, I should not be surprised at the wealth of relief prospects in the Dodgers system, but the idea the organization’s Double-A affiliate sends more 95+ arms to the mound in a single season than what I see from all other organizations combined just never gets old.

9. Ariel Pena, Milwaukee Brewers

Pena was underwhelming in person considering he had just been involved in the Zack Greinke deal. with a 91-93 MPH fastball and above average slider, he’s a prototypical 7th inning reliever. With his durable frame, the Brewers are likely hoping for more, but I struggle to see it. After watching him pitch, it was obvious that Pena was more the extra piece thrown in at the end than asset with considerable value. Pena strikes me as a prospect whose level of competition is starting to catch up to him. The question is will he make adjustments and sharpen his command to continue climbing up the organizational ladder.

10. Kyle Lotzkar, Cincinnati Reds

Lotzkar’s 2012 season can be described as “effectively wild – sort of”. Yes, 10 K/9 in the Southern League is impressive, but some of that is due to his 5+ BB/9 and batters being unable to dig in against the 22-year old right-hander. In person, he was essentially the same pitcher in April as he was in July. With a 91-93 MPH fastball and low-80’s slider, he presents with the classic two-pitch reliever mix. Plus, there’s definitely some effort in his delivery. With Lotzkar’s checkered injury history, a bullpen roles strikes me as the path of least resistance to his becoming a contributing Major League pitcher.

11. Kyle Heckathorn, Milwaukee Brewers

Based on draft position, I was expecting more from Heckathorn in person. With a low-90’s fastball and breaking ball which lacked bite, Pensacola (Reds) hitters knocked him around like they were trying to steal his lunch money. At present, Heckathorn is a low leverage middle relief type with a generic arsenal. It’s hard not to love his size, but the power stuff was not there to match. Everybody loves the idea of big, durable arms, but pitchers actually have to leverage that size into plus velocity and Heckathorn does not.

12. Luis Vasquez, Los Angeles Dodgers

The first, and only 100 MPH reading on my radar gun in three seasons, Luis Vasquez knows how to let it rip. Unfortunately, he’s unable to do much else as he rarely throws strikes and has below average secondary offerings. Vasquez will be 27 by opening day next year, so his command is unlikely to improve much. However, his fastball will afford him a career in professional baseball until his arm falls off. After one Tommy John Surgery and nearly another full season missed due to injury, it may only be a matter of time.

13. Akeel Morris, New York Mets

Morris is young, but his high effort delivery resulting in velocity readings of just 91-93 MPH was underwhelming. His curveball was better than I was expecting, but he struggled to command it. When he did, it was an average-t0 above offering. Morris was much better out of the pen than starting rotation which gives him hope. However, I just can’t consider any pitcher who walks 5+ per 9 more than a wild card at this point.

Read my previous piece Akeel Morris and other Appy Mets prospects.