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Reports From Instructs: Rays Power Arms

Instructs is a great place to find prospects you weren’t able to see during the season whether they were injured, hidden on backfields, or recent draftees. Rays righty reliever Nick Sawyer fits into the last two buckets as the 1232nd pick out of 1238 picks in the draft and a late-rising arm that signed for only $50,000 out of a Texas junior college.

Sawyer is only 5’11, 175 and during draft season, the rap on him was a smallish righty with some arm speed and command issues. While his command isn’t great, it’s fine and his delivery is cleaner than I anticipated. Sawyer sat at 93-96 mph for a few innings with his four-seamer, often spotting it up in the zone but with enough juice that hitters had trouble doing anything with the pitch.

Sawyer’s curveball was 79-83 mph and was very effective, buckling the knees of Bill Hall twice. The break would vary from three-quarters to more of a downer pitch with slight tilt but have very tight rotation and bite, flashing plus potential when it’s right. The thing to follow with Sawyer is his changeup, as the 86-87 mph was bad the first few times he threw it, improving throughout his outing. Eventually, he flashed a couple average pitches with some sink, fade and solid arm speed.

With an average changeup, instead of the question being about how quickly Sawyer can move it becomes one about his frame, command and delivery being able to stick as a starter with the stuff in place. There’s plenty here to stick the 21 year old in the rotation at Low-A and see what happens—I’ve certainly seen worse. Sawyer has a clean arm action and creates a little deception just from the suddenness of his quick arm. He worked only from the stretch in my look but his delivery wasn’t slam-dunk reliever like most stretch-only pitchers. Sawyer has solid balance and posture, with some head movement at release but nothing terrible. He throws from a higher slot than you’d expect, which works for him as it creates more plane, he gets over his front leg well, has a solid front side and his arm works well out front.

The issue that’s complicating things is something I write about a lot and is where Sawyer’s velocity comes from: at foot plant, his upper body is way behind where it should be, exacerbated but the slight open angle he takes to the plate. Coiling your body to explode and create velocity is fine, but doing it when your feet are anchored into the ground makes for a lot of unhealthy torque that manifests itself in command issues cause by effort to offset this energy and higher injury risk.

Much like Homer Simpson’s infamous quote about alcohol (“The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”) Sawyer’s arm dragging behind his body creates a slingshot effect that makes his velocity and prospect status but also limits his upside. That said, a possible big league future is plenty of upside for most and Sawyer steamrolled through his pro debut (59-14 K-BB ratio in 32 IP). If left in the pen as expected, he’s got a chance to move quickly with late-inning upside.

The other arm I saw in Rays camp that was getting into the mid 90’s pretty easily was Parker Markel. Markel was also a late-round junior college find for the Rays, as a 39th rounder in the 2010 draft out of an Arizona JC that signed for $75,000. Unlike Sawyer, Markel will flash three above average and as a 6’4, 220 pound frame to make them work as a starter.

Markel’s heater sat 93-95 with life down in the zone, supporting his strong groundball tendency. His 79-83 mph slider is the more trusted of his two off-speed pitches, with three-quarter tilt and late bite, it flashes above average potential but his feel came and went, with a couple backing up on him to his arm side. Markel’s 80-82 mph changeup has improved since the last time I saw him. It also flashes above average potential but Markel couldn’t put all the elements together as often as you’d like, making it more of a fringy pitch currently.

Some of Markel’s inconsistencies with command and stuff stem from his delivery. With his bigger frame and longer limbs, Markel has to do less to make the same velocity as Sawyer and while Markel’s arm is slightly late, it isn’t a real concern. Markel has a clean arm action, doesn’t take much of an angle to the plate and gets over his front leg pretty well while his arm decelerate effectively. The issues from Markel are in his athleticism and repetition of his delivery.

Markel falls off hard to the first base side of the mound and normally this is caused by trade offs in a delivery to create velocity but for Markel it’s just because he over-rotates his hips. He doesn’t have much effort in his simple delivery but has some trouble repeating his motion, specifically the same arm slot and some of this goes back to his soft glove hand. Ideally, the glove hand is a stiff object the body moves toward in the delivery but Markel’s glove hand hangs at his waist and acts as a countermeasure to his throwing arm. So, when Markel gets a little more off-balance than usual, his glove hand drops and his arm slot raises. This is the same issue Taijuan Walker struggles with, but Walker is a much better athlete and can repeat his delivery much better, so it only becomes an issue when he’s fatigued.

Markel flashes swing and miss stuff and has the size to be an innings eating starter, but his athleticism and consistency is holding him back. 2013 will be his age 22 season, likely as a starter in High-A after a solid full-season debut in 2012. If he can develop more body control, Markel could be a breakout prospect, but I have him as more a spot starter/middle relief prospect.