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What Can We Expect From C.J. Edwards?

Whether we like to admit it or not, exposure can play a key role in the perception of baseball prospects. Baseball’s player universe is so wide, and there’s so much going on during the season, that it’s impossible to get a good firsthand read on every notable minor leaguer out there–invariably, we have to turn to outside sources (like this very website!) to fill in the gaps and lend some measure of authority. The more sources unite at a given point in their praise or condemnation for a particular prospect, the more likely we are to take that praise or condemnation as gospel.

One surefire way for a prospect to get some helium in this fashion is to be traded, especially if the trade involves a somewhat protracted negotiation period where the prospect’s name comes up again–you know, when we hear “This is the guy System A would hate to lose and System B has to have” and so on. This sort of publicity can’t help but have an effect on the general notability of a prospect–suddenly, an A-ball guy with good numbers goes from somebody discussed on a few MiLB-centric websites and discussion threads to a topic on Baseball Tonight. For those who don’t keep extensive track of the minor leagues, suddenly the player is on their radar.

I don’t want to oversimplify the phenomenon, but I think Blue Jays righthander Kyle Drabek is a classic example of the consequences of this sort of thing. As a prospect, Drabek did have some things going for him–he got ground balls, threw 92-94 mph, and had a nice curveball. He also had some strikes against him:

1) He was a short righthander with a Tommy John surgery on his record. Even if you think the bias against short righthanders is asinine, there’s no question it still exists in some circles, which would artificially deflate a prospect’s value even if it’s not “supposed” to. The whole issue with short starting pitchers usually boils down to durability questions, and Drabek’s TJ also gave this a modicum of credence.

2) He didn’t have much of a changeup, being mostly a two-pitch pitcher–again, a sign that would point to a relief future rather than a starting one.

3) Only once in his minor league career did he manage to strike out over 20% of the batters he faced or have a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 2.5/1.

And yet, Drabek was bandied about as an elite pitching prospect for two years, and was even still looked at as a potential big arm after an absolutely disastrous rookie year in 2011. Why? Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was the centerpiece of not only the Roy Halladay trade, but also the seemingly unending rumors that swirled for months before the deal’s consummation–conveniently, the months where he had the one dominant stretch of his career (ten High-A games in 2009 with a 74/19 K/BB in 61 2/3 innings).

After the recent Matt Garza trade, newly dealt righthander C.J. Edwards seems like a candidate for a stock rise in the same vein. I saw three of his starts in Hickory this year, and today I want to try to ground the hype train and assess Edwards’ future realistically.

That long, bloated introduction might lead you to think I’m going to use the rest of this space to argue that Edwards is going to be some sort of bust. Not at all–he’s actually a very solid prospect. None of the three issues that applied to Drabek apply to Edwards–he’s 6’2″, he has three pitches that all project to at least be average, and he has pretty impressive numbers–a 1.83 ERA, 1.78 FIP, 32.4% K%, and 9.0% BB this year in Low-A, and no homers allowed in 160 1/3 career innings. Actually, “impressive” really isn’t a strong enough word to describe that collection of statistics. The Cubs have assigned Edwards to High-A Daytona–Edwards could probably have gotten High-A hitters out a year ago. He should start next year in Double-A at 22–while he’s not way ahead of the age curve for bigtime prospects, he’s not really behind it either.

Edwards has three pitches–a four-seam fastball that comes in anywhere from 88-95 mph, a big curveball at 75-80, and a fading changeup at 82-86. Right now, he generates a lot of his strikeouts by changing hitters’ eye levels with high heat and low curves. Here’s video of a few, so you can get a sense:

Right now, the curveball is probably his best pitch, as it’s a plus offering at times. It’s not quite consistently there yet, as he’ll get around the pitch on occasion, but the pitch projects to round into consistently above-average form as Edwards develops. It should be effective to both lefties and his fellow righthanders and allow him to post solid strikeout rates.

Edwards’ fastball also comes with some zip, though it doesn’t project to be as good as the curve, for a few reasons. First, it’s a mostly flat pitch. It occasionally has some cutting life to it, but it’s usually on the straight side, and I’ve heard multiple scouts express concern over him actually developing a problem with the home run ball as a result, his incredible homerless streak (playing in a fairly hitter-friendly park) notwitstanding. Edwards doesn’t help his case in this area by having a pronounced back-leg collapse in his delivery, costing him plane on the pitch. Finally, his frail 155-pound build has led to issues with maintaining his velocity–he’ll usually touch 95 mph in the first inning but never hit it again, and often is in soft-tosser territory by the sixth. For example, here’s Edwards against his 18th batter on May 2:

I’ve heard several sources note that Edwards has improved his velocity retention as the season has progressed, which is good news. Still, the lack of movement and plane is an issue, and even if he’s more consistently at 91-94 mph, that’s not the sort of velocity that he can just put at the letters time and time again and expect advanced hitters to swing through.

What this means is that we can expect significant regression in both Edwards’ strikeout and home run rates as he ascends through the minors. Of course, his K-rate is 32.4% and his homer rate is, well, zero, so he’s got a lot of room to regress before he’s anything approaching mediocre. It should be noted that while Edwards’ delivery lacks plane, he does explode toward the plate nicely and has good efficiency and balance that should assist him in developing good fastball command, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his walk rate actually shrink a bit once hitters stop chasing his pitches and force him to be in the zone more.

Edwards’ third offering is a changeup with some sink and fade that comes in a bit too hard at times, but has some promise and should develop into an average pitch. He does a nice job keeping both the curve and the change down in the zone, which helps make up for his fastball’s lack of sink and gives him a solid 46.8% groundball rate this year, including 52.4% against lefties. He’s not going to be a groundball pitcher in the majors unless he dramatically changes his approach, but he may not be a flyball/homerun liability, which is almost as important for projecting his future at Wrigley Field than it would have been projecting his future in Arlington.

So what are we left with, here? Edwards should have an average fastball and changeup and a plus curveball–he should have solid command, get a reasonable number of strikeouts, and be competent but unexceptional in limiting over-the-fence damage. That sounds like a decent third starter or good fourth starter, which is the almost universal projection I get from talking to others who have seen him this season. I have not heard a single person suggest he has a higher ceiling than that; conversely, I haven’t heard anyone be so down on him as to project him as a fifth starter, reliever, or outright bust.

As such, Edwards is a good prospect, but not a great one–I’d expect him to turn in MLB numbers akin to those of Jose Quintana this year (7.07 K/9, 2.71 BB/9, 0.98 HR/9, 44.8% GB%, 3.61 ERA, 3.86 FIP). If you’re playing in a fantasy setup of such depth that rostering a potential Quintana-esque producer two years prior to his MLB debut is a good move, then by all means add Edwards, because he is a good bet to reach that ceiling. However, in shallower dynasty formats, I wouldn’t look to Edwards as more than a potential trade chip right now, as perhaps his newfound notoriety and current statistical domination make him a good sell-high candidate. He’s certainly an interesting prospect, and the Cubs did well to acquire six years of control of him (not to mention Mike Olt, Justin Grimm, and what sounds like it’ll be an interesting PTBNL package) for two months of Matt Garza, but anointing Edwards as a must-have elite prospect is a vote of misplaced confidence.