Next wave of aces on display at Futures Game
KANSAS CITY -- For four months, spanning spring training and the start of the High Class A Florida State League, two of the game's best pitching prospects would play catch every day.
Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, the pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system, would start with four-seamers and work backwards, increasing the distance between them up to as much as 150 or even 180 feet apart. Then they'd start moving back toward each other and, when reaching a reasonable pitching distance of 60 feet, would switch to curveballs, changeups and whatever else they wanted to work on, growing increasingly familiar with his teammate's repertoire.
They were also each other's flat-ground catchers, a routine that, presumably to the relief of the Pirates, never devolved into a battle of which right-hander with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball could throw harder.
"That wouldn't have been safe, I don't think," Taillon said with a laugh.
The two friends instead became golfing and fishing pals who'd share insights on pitching (Cole helped Taillon with his changeup) and minor league life (Cole said of Taillon, "He's helped me out a lot getting adjusted and just being a good friend too").
Cole later received a promotion to Double-A, but on Sunday the two were teammates and throwing partners once again at the 14th annual All-Star Futures Game, a showcase of the game's brightest young talents, with the U.S. team routing the World team that was assembled with international players, 17-5.
Though Cole (No. 1 overall pick in 2011) and Taillon (No. 2 overall in 2010) each allowed a run while pitching their respective innings, they were two key pieces of one of the greatest assemblages of young pitching talent in recent memory, as the U.S. pitching staff was a who's who of the game's best prospects.
According to Baseball America's Midseason Top 50 Prospects list, U.S. pitchers comprise six of the top 10 spots in the rankings and eight of the top 15.
The Orioles' Dylan Bundy is No. 1, the Mariners' Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen are Nos. 4 and 5, Cole is No. 6, the Diamondbacks' Tyler Skaggs is No. 7, the Mets' Zack Wheeler is No. 10, the Red Sox's Matt Barnes is No. 13, Taillon is No. 15 and the Royals' Jake Odorizzi is No. 29. Only the Nationals' Alex Meyer was unranked on BA's midseason list (though he was No. 71 in mlb.com's preseason prospect rankings). That collection of players doesn't even include Trevor Bauer, Arizona's top prospect who was summoned to the majors two weeks ago.
"There's a lot of talk going around that this is the best pitching staff created for the Futures Game," Skaggs said. "It's exciting. I'm glad to be a part of it. They can all probably pitch in the big leagues right now."
There's no doubting that all of them have the pure stuff to be major leaguers, and many of them may indeed have the sufficient command to be immediately effective, too, though the U.S. staff was by no means overpowering on Sunday.
"The results weren't there, but the stuff was," said Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis. "You could still see these guys were throwing hard. A lot had good secondary pitches."
One inning is, of course a very small sample; blame the struggles on nerves, on facing a lineup of blue-chip hitters or on it simply being one of those days. But it is also somewhat of a reminder of the volatility and attrition rate attached to pitching prospects. (Certain baseball circles use the acronym TINSTAAPP for this: "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect.")
That said, however, this is a group of rare distinction -- young arms with lofty projections of extending the pitching renaissance presently transpiring in the big leagues. All 10 were selected in either the first round or supplemental first round of the draft, and it wouldn't be far fetched that each of them reached the majors by 2013 or 2014 at the latest.
"Some people in baseball say, a pitcher's only got so many bullets in the gun," Callis said. "There used to be a belief that you wanted so many minor league innings to build a guy up and get him ready. And now, I think, if a guy is showing the stuff and showing the command, let's get him up and start using him."
Presently, only three of the pitchers are in Triple A -- Hultzen, Odorizzi and Skaggs -- but only Hultzen is already on his club's 40-man roster, giving him the best chance of a promotion to the big leagues later this year, even if it is only for a September call-up.
Hultzen's fast ascension is of little surprise. When he committed to Virginia as a high school junior, he only threw 84-87 -- "but his pitchability was really good," Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. Much of the velocity, which is now low-to-mid-90s, developed between that commitment and his arrival in Charlottesville, and Hultzen became the team's Friday night starter (i.e. ace) as a freshman.
Despite the early success, Hultzen remained levelheaded. At the conclusion of one game, O'Connor pressed the elevator button to ride to the third-floor interview room, but Hultzen declined to join his coach because he always ran the stairs. When he wasn't pitching, he often played first base or served as the designated hitter. "He would run every ball out," O'Connor said. "He could hit a line drive to second base, and he'd run it out. It shows that there's a certain way he does things."
Much like Cole and Taillon, Hultzen and Walker were also early-season teammates in Double A, before Hultzen's 8-3 record with a 1.19 ERA in 75 1/3 innings earned him a swift promotion to Triple A. But he came away duly impressed with the potential of the 19-year-old Walker.
"He's probably the most talented pitcher I've ever seen," Hultzen said of Walker. "He's special. Once he puts it all together, he's going to be like Dwight Gooden."
One other commonality among the U.S. staff: with the exception of Barnes with Boston, none of the pitchers is from a traditional big-market powerhouse. A common refrain among the players whose parent teams are surprising this year -- the Pirates, Orioles and Mets, for instance -- is returning to their own postgame clubhouse and quickly flipping on the television for the big league game.
"The other night, they came back and won that game and we were all cheering in the locker room after we had won," Wheeler said.
Added Taillon, "I'm not just saying this because I play for the organization, but they are one of the most fun teams to watch. They run every base hard, backing up bases, they just play it the right way.
"After all of our games during the year, we'll immediately try to turn on the Pirates game on, and it seems like every night I'm walking around the locker room hollering that [Andrew McCutchen] is the best player in baseball."
It won't be long before these pitchers can make such judgments from a major league dugout.