It’s always fun to stumble upon a great pitching duel. Recently, I was able to take in the game between two top pitching prospects at the Double-A level on May 2: Cleveland’s Danny Salazar and Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon. Both hurlers come from very different backgrounds. Salazar signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2006 but saw his career derailed by injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2010. I ranked him as the seventh-best prospect in Cleveland’s system enter the 2013 season. Taillon was a higher-profile amateur pitcher as the second overall selection in the 2010 draft. I ranked the right-hander as the second-best prospect in the Pirates’ system prior to the start of the season.
Salazar, now 23, was absolutely dominant on this night. He allowed just three base runners (one hit, two walks) and 12 of his 18 outs were recorded via the strikeout. The right-hander overpowered the opposing hitters with his fastball/curveball combination — even though he struggled with the command of his heater.
He has frontline stuff even when his command is off and he’s leaning on just two pitches as he was on this night (the changeup wasn’t used much). He showed a swing-and-miss fastball thanks to top-shelf velocity and late movement. The ball also looks the same coming out of his hand for both his fastball and his curveball. Salazar has a very quick arm action but his delivery had some effort to it.
I can’t help but think the pitching prospect’s future is in the bullpen despite his three-pitch repertoire. Salazar is on the smallish side at 6’0” and has a significant history of injuries so I find it hard to envision him piling up 200 innings on an annual basis without breaking down.
He was added to the 40-man roster in November of 2011 in an effort to protect him from the annual Rule 5 draft. After being optioned to the minors in both 2012 and ’13, he has one option year remaining for 2014. When that last option year expires, he’ll have to stick in the majors or be passed through waivers if the club tries to send him to the minors.
Taillon, 21, is a beast on the mound at 6’6” 235 lbs. Despite his size and power approach, he has an easy delivery, although I’d like to see a little more fluidity to his mechanics during his full windup. He looked better from the stretch. Taillon overpowered hitters with his fastball/curveball combination and sprinkled in the odd changeup.
He showed an ability to get swings-and-misses when he threw his breaking ball for both balls (by design) and strikes. He also displayed good stuff on this night with mid-to-high-90s velocity on his fastball but he struggled to command it early in the game. Taillon’s fastball had nice arm-side run. He gave up seven hits but had just one walk and struck out six hitters. With outs recorded in the field, he had an equal number of fly balls and ground balls (five).
Salazar bested Taillon on this night — in terms of raw results — but the Pirates prospect certainly appears to have the better chance at developing into a top-of-the-rotation starter. It’s easy to envision Taillon being ready for the challenge of Triple-A by mid-2013. He should be ready for the majors at some point in 2014, the same year he has to be added to the 40-man roster to be shielded from the annual Rule 5 draft.
Other Indians Prospects:
Second baseman Jose Ramirez, 20, is not overly physical but he has a history of hitting for average and controlling the strike zone. After hitting .354 in 67 Low-A games in 2012, Cleveland skipped the Dominican Republic native over High-A ball and started him in Double-A this season. So far in 30 games, Ramirez has just three extra base hits and is hitting .240. When I saw him, he was pressing and fighting his hitting mechanics. He was getting under the ball and popped out in two straight at-bats. On the plus side, he’s still controlling the zone and has just 14 strikeouts with 13 walks. He’s also been an impact base runner with 14 steals in 18 attempts. On my pre-season Indians Top 15 Prospects list, I ranked Ramirez as the 12th best prospect in the Indians system.
Outfielder Tyler Holt, 24, had a nice game. Standing just 5’10”, he showed some surprising opposite-field pop with a standup triple to right field. He then went the other way again with a pop-out to right field in the second at-bat. With his speed and ability to play all three outfield positions, including extensive experience in center field, Holt looks like he could develop into a solid fourth outfielder. I did not rank Holt in the Indians Top 15 Prospects list.
I was a big fan of Chun-Hsiu Chen as recently as 2010 but his career has stagnated since reaching Double-A in 2011. He’s moved out from behind the plate and is now a future first baseman or designated hitter, which significantly reduced his prospect value. He’s hitting .328 at Double-A in 2013 (His third attempt at the level) and has made some adjustments to drive the ball more consistently. He has 15 extra bases hits, including six homers, after going deep just five times last season. If I’m nitpicking, Chen is still too passive at the plate and allows some very hittable pitches to go by. His swing also has some length to it at times. I did not rank him in the Indians Top 15 Prospects list.
First baseman Jose Aguilar is an intriguing player because of his raw power but Double-A has been a bit of a challenge for him to date. His power output is way down in his first 35 games of 2013 and his OPS is just .679. In his first at-bat he struck out on a curveball in the dirt and clearly needs to improve with breaking balls. In his second at-bat, he punished a low-and-away fastball to the base of the center-field wall for a double. Aguilar, 22, appears to have significantly improved his conditioning for 2013 and looks much more trim than when I saw him in 2012. Prior to 2013, I ranked Aguilar as the 11th best prospect in the system.
Middle infielder Ronny Rodriguez was very aggressive on this night and looked terrible while swinging wildly at a breaking ball well out of the strike zone. His stance at the plate reminded me of former Blue Jays infielder Tony Batista. Prior to 2013, I ranked Rodriguez, 21, as the seventh-best prospect in the system.