As I’ve said before, the Yankees have been the best organization at developing relief pitchers over the last decade. With all these top prospect lists heading our way, I rarely see much loving handed out to the relief pitchers, so I figured we could focus on an impressive group of guys that could become the team’s future. Who knows, one of these guys might be the next Mariano Rivera. While guys like Dellin Betances might ultimately become relievers, this list is for players that currently project out of the bullpen. While closeness to the majors was a factor, upside was primary, which pushed LOOGYs and many older AAA relievers off this list. Without further ado, the top 5 relief prospects.
5. RHP- Thomas Kahnle (22)
The fifth round pick in the 2010 draft had a spectacular 16 innings in his debut season, sporting a 14.1 K/9, 1.7 H/9, and 2.8 BB/9 in low A. He maintained decent numbers with strikeouts and hits, 12.4 K/9, and a more realistic 7.7 H/9, but struggled with his command, 5.4 BB/9. His command issues in 2011 were largely from trouble developing his slider, but Kahnle’s best pitch is his mid 90’s fastball that can reach 97-98. Though his 4.22 ERA In 2011 may deter many critics, he suffered from high BABIP, a low LOB%, and held a FIP at 2.45. I am not deterred by Kahnle’s gaudy ERA, and a solid season in high A/AA could move him up this list quickly.
4. RHP- Philip Wetherell (22)
Perhaps I like him more than most, but I was impressed with his 2011 debut. After being drafted 8th in the 2011 draft, Wetherell spent his season in low A sporting a 4.5 BB/9, and 6.9 H/9. Most impressively, his 12.3 K/9 led him to a 2.40 ERA and 3.03 FIP through 30 IP. His splitter is a potential plus pitch, and his low 90’s fastball has enough downward movement to combine to induce a 52% groundball rate. Any pitcher with a tendency to draw groundballs and strikeouts has huge potential, and at 6’5”, his pitches could develop even more velocity and break. Wetherell’s biggest issue is his command, and after posting a 4.5 BB/9, he needs to focus on a smoother delivery for his size.
3. RHP- Graham Stoneburner (24)
He doesn’t have much experience relieving, and after an injury plagued 2011, the righty will continue to see time starting, but his future is in the bullpen. Stoneburner stood out in 2010 when he posted a 0.993 WHIP through A and high A. Along with neck issues, he struggled missing bats in AA, with an 11.1 H/9 over 58.1 IP. Regardless, he has a potential plus sinker and slider, and above average changeup. He was a non-roster invitee this year, and perhaps the closest player to the majors on this list, which certainly helps his placement.
2. RHP- Branden Pinder (23)
Pinder was one of the biggest surprises of the 2011 draft. As a starter in college, his fastball sat at 90 mph and he threw a mediocre slider, but when he debuted out of the bullpen, he sat mid 90’s with a plus slider. Not bad for a 16th round pick. He served as the closer for Staten Island, putting up an incredible 11.0 K/9, 1.5 B/9, 1.16 ERA, a 0.667 WHIP, and 1.94 FIP through 31.0 IP. While the majority of college pitchers have good seasons in low ball, Pinder absolutely dominated it with his strikeout rate and unbelievable command, ranking 19th on Baseball America’s New York-Penn League top prospects. 2012 could be a huge season for him if he can carry on similar numbers in high A.
1. RHP- Mark Montgomery (21)
He was my sleeper for 2012 yesterday, but this is my list and now I can take away his sleeper status. Montgomery was filthy in his debut season, proving to be one of the best picks of the 2011 draft. The right hander showed off a major league ready slider in low A, striking out the side three times in a row. 4 IP was enough for the organization to promote him for Charleston. In his first game he struck out not three, but five batters in one innings. He finished the season as the closer with 51 strikeouts through 28.1 IP, good for 16.2 K/9 rate and a 6.4 H/9. His biggest problem was a 4.1 BB/9 rate, which is easily forgotten behind a 1.31 FIP at A ball. Though Pinder has stronger command, Montgomery performed at a higher level almost two years younger. Pinder might be more complete with a stronger fastball and command, but Montgomery’s slider is one of the best in the minors which means he has the most upside of any reliever in the system.
Just missing the list was AAA closer Kevin Whelan (28), George Kontos (26), and Tim Norton (28). While all three had successful seasons, their age was a huge deterrent when you consider primarily upside. Comparing one of these older players to the 21 year old Mark Montgomery is like comparing Jorge Vazquez to Gary Sanchez. Many relievers are late bloomers, but plenty of others peak in their upper 20′s. The Yankees take an aggressive stance with their relief prospects, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see later prospects make their way to the top next year.
In case you missed part one of the top 10 this afternoon, you can read it here.
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