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What to Make of Madison Bumgarner

This spring, Madison Bumgarner will compete with the likes of Todd Wellemeyer, Kevin Pucetas and Joe Martinez for the right to open the 2010 season in San Francisco’s starting rotation. Truth be told, it wouldn’t be much of a contest if ability were the sole consideration. But because workload and service time concerns also play a part in the decision, Bumgarner could end up back in the minors when the Giants head north.

Regardless of whether he cracks the roster from the get go, the 6-4, 215 pound lefty figures to see significant time in the big leagues this season. Is Bumgarner worth targeting on draft day? And, given the disagreement over his ceiling, is he an upper-echelon keeper league target, or merely a good one?

Plucked out of a North Carolina prep school with the 10th pick in the 2007 draft, Bumgarner was a prototypical projection pick: tall and lanky, able to pump premium gas in the low-90’s, and in the early stages of developing breaking and off-speed stuff.

In its draft coverage, Baseball America noted Bumgarner’s 92-94 MPH fastball (occasionally popping the mitt at 97 MPH). But BA also noted that he “tried multiple grips and shapes with his breaking ball, and at times has flashed a fringe-average pitch that has tilt and late snap at 81 mph,” and that his changeup was “a below-average pitch that should improve when and if he throws it more often.”

In 2008, Bumgarner made his pro debut in the Low-A South Atlantic League. He went all Randy Johnson on those poor Sally League hitters. Logging 141.2 innings, Bumgarner whiffed 10.42 batters per nine frames, while looking anything but raw in issuing just 1.33 BB/9. A very low homer rate (0.19 HR/9) contributed to the figure, but his FIP (1.71) looked like a typo.

Bumgarner shot to the top of prospect lists. Baseball America claimed that “there may not be a lefthander with a better fastball than Bumgarner’s.” He sat 93-94 MPH, again touching the upper nineties. BA said that his secondary pitches remained “a work in progress,” but they rated him as the ninth-best talent in the minors.

Bumgarner earned gushing reports from all of the prospect gurus:

Baseball America

“Bumgarner has all the gifts to be a No. 1 starter.”

Kevin Goldstein: #3 overall

“A tall, power left-hander with mid-90’s heat, a plus breaking ball, and impeccable command, Bumgarner was the best pitcher in the minors last year…”

Keith Law: #6 overall

The rudimentary secondary stuff plus his low arm slot had scouts — including me — assuming he was a long way away from the majors. His slider made enormous strides in his first full year in pro ball, and his changeup is now solid-average, no small feat for a pitcher who throws from a low 3/4 slot.

John Sickels: #14 overall (A Grade)

“Health is a risk as with any young pitcher, but incredible performance at a young age and improved secondary stuff stands out.”

This past year, Bumgarner began the year in the High-A California League, where he again made quick work of the opposition (24.1 IP, 23/4 K/BB, 2.05 FIP). Bumped up to the Double-A Eastern League, he posted a minuscule ERA (1.93). For the first time, though, his peripherals weren’t otherworldly.

In 107 innings, Bumgarner struck out a tame 5.8 hitters per nine innings, with 2.52 BB/9 and a 3.56 FIP. His searing fastball lost its second gear, sitting in the high-80’s during the second half of the season (some attribute the drop to too much throwing on the side). Called up to the majors in September to make one start and three relief appearances, Bumgarner tossed his heater at an average of 89.2 MPH.

Over the off-season, Bumgarner seemed to lose some of his luster with prospect evaluators:

Baseball America: #14 overall

“At his best, Bumgarner has shown a mid-90s fastball, a slider with good tilt and an average changeup…Bumgarner pitched at 88-90 mph for most of the second half of last season…His slider still isn’t a finished product and his changeup isn’t entirely trustworthy.”

Kevin Goldstein: #21 overall

“Scouts noted a consistent velocity drop that by the end of the year amounted to a full 5 mph.”

Keith Law: #28 overall

“Bumgarner took a big tumble this year when his velocity gradually declined the deeper he went into the season.”

John Sickels: A- Grade (no top 100 ranking yet)

“Almost went with B+, but strikeout rates aren’t everything. More concerned about dropping velocity.”

As Harry Pavlidis showed recently, concerns over Bumgarner’s lack of zip persist. It doesn’t seem unusual for a pitcher to show less-than-optimum velocity at the beginning of spring training. But given his sapped fastball speed last year, Bumgarner’s radar readings bear watching.

I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to grab Bumgarner for 2010. CHONE is circumspect, projecting 5.93 K/9, 3.76 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9 and a 4.99 FIP. Given his good-not-great slider and changeup, Bumgarner would need to rediscover his ’08 heat in order to make waves in the majors.

For all of “the sky is falling” rhetoric surrounding Bumgarner, it is important to remember that A.) he’s just 20 and B.) he still ranked highly on all prospect lists. True, it is troubling that a pitcher known primarily for his lively fastball is having a hard time hitting 90. However, this could be a good time to nab the southpaw in a keeper league from an owner fretting over the curious case of Bumgarner’s velocity.

Keep an eye on the radar gun when Bumgarner pitches, but don’t abandon ship in keeper leagues while getting 70 cents on the dollar in return.