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Inbox: Who are the top reliever prospects?

Jonathan Mayo answers fans' questions about baseball's future stars
October 7, 2016

There's no question that the postseason is a wonderful time of year. All eyes -- including mine -- are on the eight teams vying to be the next World Series champion. But I watch while also remembering the past.I can't speak for all prospect writers, but one of the things

There's no question that the postseason is a wonderful time of year. All eyes -- including mine -- are on the eight teams vying to be the next World Series champion. But I watch while also remembering the past.
I can't speak for all prospect writers, but one of the things I like most about this time of year is to see players I knew "before they were stars." These days, prospects are much more known than they used to be, but we still get the chance to talk to and write about them before much of the world does.
Take one of Thursday's heroes from the Indians' 5-4 win against the Red Sox, for example: Francisco Lindor. I can't begin to count the amount of times I've interviewed him. There was the 2015 Rookie Career Development Program. Or how about how excited he was to be in the Arizona Fall League in 2014? Or maybe the second of three Futures Game experiences?
And that's just one player. We here at have had the pleasure of talking to players up and down all of the playoff rosters when they were just up-and-comers. The point of all this, beyond just patting ourselves on the back? It pays to pay attention to who we talk about, even in our weekly Pipeline Inbox. You never know when a subject of one of these questions will turn into an October hero.

We probably don't give relievers enough credit as prospects. We've talked, at times, about putting together a top reliever list on Prospect Watch, but haven't put that into action. Sometimes -- more so in the past than now when relievers are groomed early on -- it can be tough to single out future closers because they begin as starters in the Minors. Mariano Rivera made 22 starts in the Yankees' farm system in 1994, then 17 more between Triple-A and the big leagues in 1995, before starting his evolution to the greatest closer ever.
I bring up that example to say that the next great closer might not even be a reliever yet. For the sake of this exercise, however, I am only going to look at current relievers. More and more, pitchers are entering pro ball as short relievers, and there are some good ones with closer-type stuff and mentality to choose from. The first one who pops into my head is Zack Burdi of the White Sox. Taken No. 26 overall, he's now the organization's No. 4 prospect. He has a strong pedigree as Louisville's closer, not to mention a fastball that reaches triple-digits. He also has a nasty slider and even mixes in a decent changeup, all while being around the strike zone. During his first pro summer, he raced all the way to Triple-A (.174 batting average against and 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings) and should be ready to contribute in Chicago in 2017. David Robertson may have two years left on his contract, but I'd keep an eye on how things progress.
Staying in the AL Central, I can't answer a question about relievers without discussing Joe Jimenez. He's No. 5 on the Tigers Top 30 and completely dominated across three levels in 2016, finishing with 30 saves, which tied him for the second most in the Minors. He also had a 1.58 ERA, .144 BAA and 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Not bad for a non-drafted free agent, right? Francisco Rodríguez may have been big in 2016, but he'll be 35 next season and the Tigers hold the option on him.

In back-to-back years, the White Sox took college pitchers with premium stuff with their first Draft picks, both in the top 10. In 2014, it was Carlos Rodón at No. 3. A year later came Carson Fulmer at No. 8 overall. Both made it to the big leagues in a hurry, a season after being drafted. Though Fulmer got his first shot out of the bullpen, I still see his future as a part of the rotation with Rodon.
Both pitchers made strides in the second half of the 2016 season. For Fulmer, he struggled in trying to slow down his delivery. When he went back to what worked for him at Vanderbilt, using a super-quick arm that scared some scouts, but has always worked, he had a lot more success. Rodon, too, saw his numbers improve later in the season. He cut his walk rate down considerably from 2015, while continuing to miss bats consistently. That's a really good sign.
Fulmer will need to show that his improvements as a starter will stick at the upper levels, and he'll have to continue to refine his command. I think Rodon fits the profile a bit better and is the more likely No. 2. But having Fulmer as a No. 3 is a luxury the White Sox would love to have over the next several years.

Keeping up with affiliate changes can be a tough task and it will take some getting used to having the Angels with a new Double-A affiliate, not to mention a new league. Los Angeles had been affiliated with Arkansas in the Texas League for 16 seasons.
But now The Mobile BayBears will welcome in Angels prospects in 2017. Truth be told, the Angels system isn't one of the stronger ones in baseball, but that doesn't mean there won't be solid players to watch next season. The first one of note I can see starting there is catcher Taylor Ward, currently No. 3 on the Angels Top 30. The 2015 first-round pick spent the year in the California League and while his overall numbers (.249/.323/.337) don't jump out, he did hit .274/.359/.415 in the second half, so I expect him to be behind the plate for Mobile on Opening Day.
No. 1 prospect Matt Thaiss, the Angels' top pick in 2016, will likely follow Ward's path and begin the year in the California League. But with his advanced approach at the plate, I could see the first baseman hitting his way up to join Ward at some point during the 2017 season. Others who could very well start the year on the BayBears' roster are: infielder David Fletcher (No. 9 on the Top 30), RHP Grayson Long (No. 10), as well as outfielders Chad Hinshaw (No. 15), Caleb Adams (No. 17) and Jared Foster (No. 21).

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.