Sizing Up the Relief Pitching Prospects

Montgomery is closing in on the big leagues analyzes the Yankees relief pitching prospects. Which relievers have the highest ceilings? Which ones are closest to the the big leagues? Which ones could be potential sleepers? Which ones need to make their move?

For the purpose of this article we will focus on the pitchers who have been pitching mainly in relief, not the starting pitching prospects who could shift to the bullpen at some point.

Highest Ceiling

RHP, Danny Burawa: The hard-throwing St. John's product missed the entire 2012 season with a torn oblique followed up with a mysterious rib injury. When healthy he boasts a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with good movement and a slider that shows plus potential on any given day. He still has to prove his much improved strike-throwing from 2011 wasn't a fluke, but if can do that going forward he has real back-end of the bullpen type potential.

RHP, Nick Goody: This year's sixth round pick was virtually unhittable in his professional debut season, limiting opposing hitters to a paltry .177 batting average over three minor league levels. He has a 91-94 mph fastball that tops out at 96 mph pretty routinely and his slider is an above average big league pitch. He throws both of them with pinpoint command and knows how to setup batters, and he's working hard on developing his changeup. He doesn't have bonafide big league closing potential but he has the look of a potential setup man and he's going to move his way through the minor leagues very quickly.

RHP, Tommy Kahnle: Kahnle gets lost in the impact reliever discussions with some folks despite a fastball that routinely sat 95-98 mph a year ago and boasting a sick big league changeup. He couldn't really control that plus heater though and was often times pitching behind in counts. He settled down in 2012 though, threw mostly in the 92-94 mph range, and the consistent strike-throwing ability began to materialize. If he can use his much improved mechanics and make them more second nature going forward, and get his velocity back up into the plus-plus range, with an improved slider, the sky is the limit for him. The ceiling is immense.

RHP, Branden Pinder: Like Kahnle, Pinder often times goes overlooked despite throwing his fastball in the 93-97 mph range and a potentially plus slider that averages 86-89 mph. He also has a power changeup that possesses plus potential as well and he's learned to not be too fine with his pitches after his first full season in 2012. He still needs his secondary pitches to be more consistent going forward but he has true long-term closing potential if things break right for him.

Closest to the Majors

RHP, Preston Claiborne: He doesn't have a true plus pitch and that limits his long-term potential when it comes to filling out the back-end of a big league bullpen, but with three above average pitches, including a changeup that flashes plus potential, he also boasts the kind of underrated stuff and pitch-ability that make him one of the best 'sleeper' prospects around as a solid middle reliever option someday. But now with some Triple-A experience and a solid Double-A performance under his belt, he's inching his way closer to the big leagues.

QUITE POLISHED: Whitley isn't overpowering but he knows how to get batters out. (Photo: Jim McGregor/SWB Yankees)
RHP, Mark Montgomery: Montgomery definitely fits into the highest ceiling category too but after dominating his way up the minor league level in his first full season in 2012, and doing much of the same in the Arizona Fall League this offseason, few pitchers can match his kind of stuff and quick trajectory towards the big leagues. With an above average fastball and a plus-plus slider, he could be a viable big league bullpen option at some point in 2013.

RHP, Chase Whitley: He doesn't throw nearly as hard as many of the aforementioned names here and his breaking ball isn't a plus pitch either, but what he does have is an above average fastball that he can command at will and a plus changeup that can negate both left-handed and right-handed hitting batters. Like Claiborne he doesn't project to be much more than a big league middle reliever, but now Triple-A tested he also offers one of the safest bullpen options down on the farm.

The "Sleepers"

RHP, Zach Arneson: The hard-throwing righty missed pretty much the entire 2012 season battling neck and shoulder issues, amassing a total of just four innings between the Gulf Coast League and low-A Charleston. However, when healthy, he sits in the 93-94 mph range with his fastball and tops out at 97 mph, and his slider flashes plus potential. He's not one of the top prospects yet after pretty much missing what would have been his first full minor league season, thus losing development time on his slider, but he has a very high ceiling worth tracking.

PLUS STUFF: Barreda has three plus pitches at his disposal. (Photo: Mark LoMoglio)
RHP, Manny Barreda: The 5-foot-11 hurler has the kind of stuff that can stack up with anyone in the organization, including even some of the top pitching prospects. He has a fastball that sits 92-95 mph and tops out at 97 mph, a plus slider, and a plus changeup. He doesn't throw nearly enough strikes though and walks a few too many batters, and that wild streak has allowed him to fly under the radar big-time. If he can learn to consistently pitch ahead in the count, watch out, he has the type of potential closing stuff that could sneak up on some folks.

LHP, James Pazos: The Yankees' 13th round pick this year, Pazos is a very interesting prospect because he'll sit anywhere from 91-93 mph with his fastball and his slider can be a true knockout pitch on any given day. The slider still needs to be consistent going forward, however, for him to be a viable long-term option but he already has the look of a potential left-handed specialist at minimum. Watch the development of his slider closely though because there's real upside here.

LHP, Francisco Rondon: The hard-throwing Dominican southpaw has long been a 'sleeper' prospect for the Yankees, thanks in large part to a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider. His game is starting to get noticed more lately too because he can throw strikes more consistently with his fastball and he has developed his changeup into a big league weapon recently. He could probably fit into the "Closest To The Big Leagues" category after a successful Double-A stint in 2012, but even after that there are still many folks who don't realize just how good his stuff truly is. He has real left-handed setup potential if he can throw even more strikes.

RHP, Phil Wetherell: He's the lone pitcher here who has had innings as a starter recently but that was more out of necessity, not only filling a minor league team need but a designed plan to get him to work more on his slider and changeup. Like Arneson he has a mid-90s fastball that tops out at 97 mph, but he also has a plus split-finger. If he could get the slider or changeup into the plus category as well he could really be a long-term setup type option for the Yankees.

Need to Make Their Move

RHP, Mariel Checo: Stuff-wise he's nearly Manny Barreda-like. He won't top out at 97 mph like Barreda, but his fastball can range anywhere from 91-95 mph with good movement and both his changeup and slider can be plus pitches at any given time. However, he takes wildness to new levels, walking more batters than he strikes out. A typical line for him is one inning pitched, an earned run or more allowed on a hit, a couple of walks, and either a hit batsmen or a wild pitch. He hasn't even made it to high-A ball and time is running out for him.

LHP, Evan DeLuca: DeLuca is pretty much the left-handed version of Checo as a guy who has above average to plus stuff on any given day but pitches so frequently behind in the count that he either gets hit hard or gives up too many walks. In fact, he too walked more batters than he struck out in 2012 and was charged with ten wild pitches in short-season Staten Island. He has to start throwing more strikes soon if he's to resurrect his once very promising future.

RHP, Kelvin Perez: The Dominican native could fit into any of the other categories really, including "Highest Ceiling" and "Closest to the Majors" after a dominating Double-A performance before reaching Triple-A and boasting a mid-90s fastball with two above average secondary pitches. However, at 27-years old he really needs to force his way into the big league mix if he's going to have any real impact with the Yankees.

RHP, Ryan Pope: The former third round pick isn't much younger than Perez, turning 27 years old next May. The stuff is solid, including a 92-93 mph fastball and a big league curveball-changeup combination, and he throws a lot of strikes too. The problem is he's not missing nearly enough bats [hitters batted .313 against him in 2012] and time is running out for him.

RHP, Graham Stoneburner: The 14th round pick from 2009 has had a checkered injury history the past two seasons, dealing with a neck injury in 2011 and a groin injury in 2012. When healthy he shows an above average to plus fastball, although lately it's been more the former, and a borderline plus changeup. The slider though remains a bit too inconsistent and he has just now begun his transition to the bullpen. The now 25-year old has to prove he can remain healthy for a full season and get back to swing-and-miss ways.

The Jury is Still Out

LHP, Dietrich Enns: This year's 19th round pick posted a solid 2.11 ERA for the Staten Island Yankees and showed an average big league fastball, a decent changeup, and a slider that can be very inconsistent. The breaking ball has a ways to go to become an effective weapon at the higher minor league levels but the pitch-ability is intriguing for now.

RHP, Derek Varnadore: A ninth round pick this year, Varnadore also had a solid professional debut season with the Staten Island Yankees, posting a 3.55 ERA overall. He was used as both a starter and a reliever, and saw a bit more success out of the bullpen [3.00 ERA as a reliever]. He also shows a better fastball in shorter stints, sitting 92-94 mph and topping out at 96 mph, and a slider that can be very effective. He could be a 'sleeper' of sorts too if the Yankees continue to use him as a reliever going forward.

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