The rise of a stud rookie pitcher can rank among the most thrilling things a local fanbase sees all summer -- even more so if the rook sticks around and pitches into October. And one of the countless changes wrapped up in this summer’s shortened season is that we could
The rise of a stud rookie pitcher can rank among the most thrilling things a local fanbase sees all summer -- even more so if the rook sticks around and pitches into October. And one of the countless changes wrapped up in this summer’s shortened season is that we could see that phenomenon more than any year in recent memory.
A 60-game season means workloads for all starting pitchers will be greatly reduced. For top-rated prospects who entered Spring Training in February expecting to pitch against an innings restriction, a 60-game sprint should render those restrictions all but moot. Add on the taxi squads and expanded rosters that each club will be working with, and even more opportunities are suddenly on the table. With the Minor League season in flux, clubs have further incentive to give their top prospects meaningful game action in the bigs.
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So, in a perfect world where injuries don’t throw a wrench into things, here are five top prospects who could make a big impact with the reins loosened for 2020:
Jesús Luzardo (Athletics No. 1, No. 12 overall) and A.J. Puk (Athletics No. 3, No. 60 overall)
Oakland’s pair of lefties ranked among the most impressive pitchers in Spring Training 1.0, building on strong cups of coffee last year and looking like Major League-ready rotation pieces. Puk should be fully healed from the shoulder strain that brought his camp to an early end, and a quick-sprint season could be an ideal way for Oakland to ramp up he and Luzardo, who have both been limited by Tommy John surgeries in recent years. The A’s might have been hesitant to push either pitcher past 100 innings this year, but that shouldn’t be an issue now.
Nate Pearson (Blue Jays No. 1, No. 8 overall)
A short sprint could play into the hands of a young club that doesn’t know it’s not supposed to compete yet, and having a guy who throws triple digits could help, too. The Blue Jays were originally expected to keep Pearson in Triple-A for at least a month after he threw a career-high 101 2/3 innings last year, likely capping him at about 140 innings in '20. There’s virtually no way he’d reach that total now.
Pearson overwhelmed hitters in Spring Training 1.0 (1 ER, 11 K’s over 7 IP), to the point where Blue Jays bench coach Dave Hudgens was offering cash to any hitter who could barrel him up in camp. For Toronto general manager Ross Atkins, the temptation to unleash him on the AL East has to be there.
Michael Kopech (White Sox No. 3, No. 20 overall)
We've been waiting since 2018 to see Kopech turn it loose at the big league level again after he injured his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. He was back to pumping 100 mph in his comeback appearance this spring, and showing more extension on his pitches than he did pre-surgery. There was originally no chance Kopech was going to break camp with Chicago, but if one guesses that general manager Rick Hahn was simply hoping Kopech could stay under or equal his combined innings total (140 2/3) from '18 this year, that should be a cinch now.
It’s not like Kopech would need to headline the White Sox rotation; that’s covered by Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. But what a weapon he could be -- either in situational relief or as a spot starter -- for a Chicago club that hopes to change the hierarchy in the AL Central.
Dustin May (Dodgers No. 2, No. 23 overall)
May might have been on the outside looking in on a Dodgers organization stacked with starting pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, David Price, Alex Wood and Ross Stripling, especially after the Dodgers shut him down with soreness in his left side during Spring Training 1.0. But May says he’s back to 100%, and the absence of the Minors might convince Los Angeles to bring him up to get some work in 2020.
May showed plenty of promise across 34 2/3 innings last year, posting a 3.63 ERA, 2.90 FIP and racking up lots of soft contact. He also got reps out of the bullpen, and it’s easy to see manager Dave Roberts plugging May into some big spots in the middle innings.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.