Jose Campos: What’s Left?

At this point, it’s fairly well-accepted that the vaunted Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda trade has not worked out especially well for either the Yankees or the Mariners. Montero has hit all of .252/.293/.377 while playing poor defense and amassing -1.0 WAR; meanwhile, Hector Noesi has gone 2-13 with a 5.79 ERA, 5.36 FIP, and -0.7 WAR. Montero’s been the second-worst catcher of the past two seasons according to WAR, whereas Noesi has been the third-worst pitcher (min. 100 IP). Meanwhile, Pineda has yet to throw an inning for the Yankees due to injury problems.

Indeed, the only player of the four in that deal who was healthy and remotely effective for the duration of the 2013 season was the throw-in on the other side, Jose Campos. Of course, the level he was effective at was Low-A, and Campos has endured his own post-trade misfortune, making five starts in 2012 before being shut down with elbow problems and missing the rest of the season. But he once was considered arguably the top pitching prospect in short-season ball, and he did have a fine season this year, with a 3.41 ERA, 2.87 FIP, and 77/16 K/BB in 87 2/3 innings (The low innings total was due to an extremely short leash–with the exception of one outing, he was only allowed to work 2-4 innings each time out–not an abbreviated season). So what exactly do the Yankees have here?

I got to see Campos in one of his final “extended” outings (his last five appearances of the year were two-inning relief stints) on July 20 against Hickory, where he worked four solid frames, allowing just two hits, a walk, and a run while striking out six. Here’s the video of that outing:

When he was acquired by the Yankees before the 2012 season, Campos was billed as a live power arm who worked at 92-95 mph, touching 98, with a curve and change that needed work but flashed potential. Clearly, he doesn’t have quite the same arm strength now that he did before his elbow troubles, as he operated mostly at 92-93 with the heater in this outing, occasionally dipping into the 89-91 range. The pitch shows glimpses of life but is fairly straight.

The fact that Campos has barely thrown 100 innings across the past two years hasn’t helped the development of his offspeed pitches, which still fall into the “promising but raw” category. The curve comes in anywhere from 72-78 mph with inconsistent shape, depth, and power. When he stays on top of it in the upper half of its velocity range, it has knee-buckling potential, but it often is either too soft or too slurvy. Likewise, he shows some confidence in his 81-85 mph changeup, and the pitch has some velocity separation and occasional sink, but it often just looks like a slow fastball.

Obviously, none of his three pitches can be called a plus offering at this point. That’s not to say his arsenal doesn’t have potential–if Campos regains some of his alleged past velocity and gains consistency on the curveball, he could have two plus pitches. There is certainly upside remaining here, but the improvements he needs to make are broader than those required of a lot of the other A-ball arms thrown around as bigtime prospects.

What’s interesting is that while Campos’ current stuff falls short of the lofty pre-trade (and, more notably, pre-injury) reports, he does appear more polished than his reputation suggests. He walked just 4.5% of batters he faced this season, and it’s not hard to see why. Campos has a nice, rhythmic, repeatable delivery with decent use of his lower half and good tempo. He does a nice job staying in sync and repeating his release point, which gives him advanced control for his age.

This means that if Campos–who never succumbed to Tommy John surgery despite the elbow issues–can stay healthy, he may actually have a fairly high floor–being around the zone with 92-93 mph heat and a promising curve is a nice place to start.

In terms of being an impact talent, though, a lot hinges on that lost velocity. As you can see in the video, Campos isn’t some rail-thin kid with all sorts of room to add strength–he already has a fairly mature pitcher’s body. On the positive side, his build and mechanics suggest durability; however, they don’t suggest a ton of projection. That’s not to say he won’t add velocity, but there’s also no obvious reason to think he’ll suddenly emerge as a true flamethrower.

And if Campos is only going to throw about 92, his fastball won’t really be a plus offering, which means he’ll need a lot of improvement in the curve and (especially) the changeup to be an impact starting pitcher. He’ll need them more as time goes on, especially to help against lefties, against whom his K/BB was less than half of what it was to righties (29/9 to 48/7). Of course, a 29/9 K/BB is still quite good, but he’ll find it more difficult to get lefthanded batters to swing and miss at this caliber of stuff at the upper levels.

So, in sum, Campos is a bit of a confusing prospect, especially because he doesn’t match his preexisting reputation on several levels. He was billed as a raw, exciting flamethrower, but now looks more like a workhorse control pitcher…but doesn’t really have the sort of polished arsenal that comes to mind when the “potential workhorse” label is usually applied. The injury issues and subsequent short leash also cast some uncertainty about Campos’ health (present and future) and where his velocity will end up, two factors that will make an immense impact on his future.

With all that on the table, the now-21-year-old is too young and promising to be written off as another failed remnant of a busted trade, and is still a very real prospect. However, while he has solid numbers and boasts some decent scouting attributes, Campos has neither the eye-catching tools of a high-ceiling arm nor the broad polish of a near-sure-thing high-floor arm at this point in his career. He bears watching to see if he can regain velocity, polish up his offspeed stuff, maintain or improve his production, and stay healthy and go deeper into games at a higher level next year, but until that sort of broad improvement comes about, he shouldn’t be particularly close to the front of A-ball pitching prospect lists.

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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Cool Lester Smooth
Cool Lester Smooth

I don’t think the hope is that he will “suddenly emerge as a true flamethrower” so much as it is that he will eventually go back to being the true flamethrower he was in 2011 and 2012.