The first-place Texas Rangers have been counting on developing pitching from within, with current fifth starter Derek Holland and Triple-A hurler Neftali Feliz being among the first wave.
However, recently I got to see some intriguing first-round draft picks in the lower minors who are pitching for the Rangers' high Class A club in Bakersfield.
Blake Beavan, SP
Beavan was a first-round pick in the 2007 draft out of a Texas high school, going 17th overall. A big 6-foot-7 right-hander, he's athletic for his size, and his body draws comparisons to a slightly thinner Josh Johnson. He gained some notoriety immediately after his selection for saying that his slider was the "filthiest" he'd ever seen, and that he could "do just as bad as them," referring to a Rangers rotation that was arguably the worst in baseball at the time. The 20-year-old has matured and learned a little bit of humility since then, but his brashness is part of what helps him be a good pitcher, as he's aggressive, attacks hitters and trusts his stuff.
That "stuff" is a four-seam fastball that touched 95-96 mph as an amateur, but hasn't seen that velocity as a pro. In fact, his velocity had reportedly dropped into the 89-91 range at one point. It's starting to come back, though, as I had him consistently at 90-93 mph. Even though he doesn't throw a two-seam fastball, he gets good downward movement, and his ball is heavy enough to get a good amount of ground balls. He can also pound the strike zone with it and command it on both halves of the plate. That self-described "filthy" slider can indeed be that at times, as it touches the mid 80s with sharp, late bite, but it also will back up on him a bit too often. His 81-82 mph changeup has also shown some marked improvement during the past year. He never threw one as an amateur, but in his second year of having it in his repertoire, it has good sink, although he will occasionally slow his arm speed.
"The changeup has really been one of my better pitches so far," Beavan said. "Last year, I really didn't use it much, but I think it's starting to become a dominant pitch."
The Rangers' coaching staff has done a good job fixing Beavan's delivery. He was drafted for his power arm, but his mechanics were a bit shaky and he threw across his body; he's much cleaner now. His biggest issue is still finding a consistent slot, as he loses his release point and his pitches start to flatten out, especially his slider. Getting him to use his height and his lower half better and getting a good down-plane angle to the plate is still a work in progress.
"I know sometimes I don't use my height as well as I should, which affects me leaving the ball up at times," Beavan agreed. "I'm really trying to push off the mound and use my lower body. That's going to make the arm slot the same every time, and give you that angle on your fastball, tilt on your slider and life on your changeup. Everything's just going to click. I'm just trying to get the ball down, especially in [the California League]. It's a hitter's league and the ball flies. The hitters are swinging for the fences a lot."
In that tough environment for pitchers, Beavan scuffled earlier in the season, including a rough start against Stockton in early May in which he gave up eight runs in 2 2/3 innings. However, he followed that up with a four-hit shutout and has thrown five straight quality starts. He has struck out 39 and walked 13 in 59 1/3 innings. Last year, he posted a 2.37 ERA in 23 starts, fanning 73 and walking 20 in 121 2/3 frames.
"The Stockton outing really made me sit down and think about what I had to do to adjust and change some stuff up, and it's starting to pay off," Beavan said. "I still have a lot to learn, but I'm getting better at thinking about how to pitch to hitters, rather than just saying, 'Here you go, hit it.'"
As he gains consistency, and perhaps a touch more velocity, his strikeout rates should bump up a bit, and his profile as a pitcher who can induce ground balls will complement that nicely. He can eventually be a solid pitcher in the middle of a big league rotation who's worth stashing away in dynasty leagues.
Michael Main, SP
While Beavan is headed in the right direction, Main -- a fellow 2007 first-rounder -- is struggling. Picked with the 24th selection out of a Florida high school, the 6-foot-1 right-hander had a good (though injury-shortened) season in low Class A last season, striking out 50 in 45 1/3 innings with a 2.58 ERA in 10 starts. He missed time early in the season due to two stress fractures in his ribs.
Although he has struck out 40 in 50 innings this season, he also has walked 34 and given up 62 hits. He allowed just one run in 5 1/3 innings of work on Tuesday, but that just lowered his ERA to 6.48 for the season.
"It's about adjustments," Main said. "The beginning of the season, I kind of got hit around a bit and didn't pitch very well, but it's starting to come around. I just need to make more quality pitches, use my off-speed [pitches] more and mix it up. Locating the fastball is a huge thing for me."
The 19-year-old earned such a lofty draft position thanks to a loose, quick arm with the strength to hit the high 90s as an amateur. However, that velocity hasn't shown itself yet this season, as he's working more in the low 90s. Obviously, there are some major control issues right now, and he hasn't had command of his potential plus curveball. It's tight with good depth when it's on, but it hasn't been that way lately. He also has good arm speed on his circle change, but again, he has trouble commanding it.
His delivery isn't so complicated that it should be difficult to repeat, but he is having problems doing that at the moment, and it's causing his pitches to go everywhere. He often cuts off his extension out front, and leaves the ball up in the zone way too much. There's just no consistency, and I'm sure that's part of his velocity drop. He's just really fighting his mechanics.
"A lot of times, it's just finding that rhythm in my windup and my delivery and making sure everything is synchronized together," Main said. "Sometimes my hands and my lower body will have the timing off and one gets ahead of the other, so it's about making sure everything is in sync."
He has moved from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side and has shown some small signs of improvement, with three decent outings in his past four starts.
"We've been tinkering with things," Main said, "but I feel strong with my mechanics right now, and I'm starting to feel sound."
He obviously has plenty of time to figure things out given his age, and he also has room to add some strength to his frame. There's still the upside here of a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but it's going to take some patience.
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