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Cecil Creeping Under the Radar

The Toronto Blue Jays were stuck between a rock and a hard place in 2008. The Jays were an excellent run-prevention club last season, surrendering just 610 runs (by far the lowest total in the game: the Dodgers finished a distant second with 648 tallies allowed). Toronto’s stinginess in permitting runners to cross home plate was a combined effort: the starters posted the third-best FIP in the majors (3.79), the guys in the ‘pen placed fourth (3.85) and the Jays flashed the leather, ranking third in Defensive Efficiency (.704). Despite tallying 86 victories and posting 93 Pythagorean Wins, Toronto finished fourth in the brutally competitive AL East.

Suffice it to say, things will not get any easier in 2009. With the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees all poised to approach or surpass the 90-win mark again, the Jays stand little chance of competing. Last year’s strong rotation will be missing a few key pieces- A.J. Burnett defected to the Bombers, Shaun Marcum will miss the season following Tommy John surgery, and promising power pitcher Dustin McGowan is still in the process of recovering from shoulder surgery.

With the back of Toronto’s rotation unsettled, the opportunity exists for one of the more underappreciated youngsters in the minors to make his mark. Brett Cecil might just be the best pitching prospect that few have heard of.

Plucked out of Maryland in the supplemental first round of the 2007 amateur draft, Cecil was a top closer for the Terrapins in college. However, the Jays noted the lefty’s promising four-pitch mix (low-90’s fastball, plus slider, curve, changeup) and sturdy frame (6-3, 220 pounds) and envisioned a future starter.

Cecil’s transition into the rotation has gone exceedingly well. Sent to Auburn (New York-Penn League) to start his professional career, Cecil mowed down less experienced players. In 47 innings, he whiffed 56 batters (10.15 K/9) while filling up the strike zone as well (1.99 K/9). His heavy fastball made many a hitter put the ball on the ground, as Cecil posted a 57.9 GB%. The Terp’s 5.09 K/BB ratio and 2.05 FIP impressed Baseball America, as the publication named Cecil Toronto’s second-best farm product (behind Travis Snider). BA predicted that “his frontline stuff and bulldog demeanor” would allow Cecil to become “at least a number 3 starter.”

The power southpaw began the 2008 campaign at High-A Dunedin, but his stay there would be short. After punching out 11 in 10.1 innings, Cecil was promoted to AA New Hampshire. In 77.2 innings with the Fisher Cats, he continued to miss a ton of bats (10.08 K/9), limit the walks (2.67 BB/9) and burn many a worm (59.2 GB%). Cecil’s FIP in the Eastern League was a sparkling 2.71. Continuing his rapid ascent, Cecil reached AAA Syracuse last in the season. He issued a few too many free passes (4.7 BB/9) in 30.2 innings of work, but continued to fool hitters and keep his fielders on their toes (9.1 K/9, 67.4 GB%). BA Ranked Cecil 3rd in the Jays’ system following the season.

Brett Cecil might not make the Blue Jays straight out of spring training, but there’s a lot to like here. The big lefty has a track record of punching out a plethora of batters, has solid control and also possesses strong groundball tendencies. High K and groundball rates- that’s a recipe for success in the major leagues. He might just be ready to the jump to the highest level, too. Cecil’s translated FIP (per Minor League Splits) was 3.94 in 2008, and Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system pegs the 22 year-old for a tasty 3.54 ERA, 83 K’s and 34 BB’s in 90 innings in 2009. The groundball-centric hurler would also be flanked by plus defenders, as Toronto’s defensive alignment essentially returns intact.

Cecil might not come with the notoriety of a David Price or a Tommy Hanson, but he’s an intriguing arm in his own right. If you’re looking for a rookie starter who could hit the ground running, then Cecil is your man.