Minor Achievements: Cecil, Mills getting closer to Jays' rotation
Updated: April 15, 2009, 1:34 PM ETBy Jason Grey | ESPN.com
With the Blue Jays now having added Jesse Litsch to the list of the starting-rotation wounded, Brian Tallet will be changing his role to starting pitcher, at least temporarily. Still, it seems like a good time to look at a couple of the starting-pitcher prospects the team hopes will be ready to contribute at some point this season. Ricky Romero and Scott Richmond are already in the rotation, but the Jays have a couple of hurlers at Triple-A worth paying attention to, especially in AL-only leagues. Brett Cecil, SP, Blue Jays: Cecil was a college closer at Maryland who went 38th overall in the 2007 draft with the Blue Jays intending to make him a starter, and that transition has gone very well so far. I'm a huge fan of pitchers who can rack up strikeouts and keep the ball on the ground, of course, and that's Cecil's profile. The southpaw gets good sink and can break bats with his low-90s two-seamer, and he has posted better than a 2-1 groundball-to-flyball ratio in his pro career. He also has struck out 185 batters in 165 innings of pro ball despite having just 18 games in the low minors under his belt before starting last year at Double-A and finishing with six starts at Triple-A in which he held his own. The lefty Cecil's bread and butter is a two pitch-combination with his fastball and a slider that is a true wipeout pitch. It sits solidly in the low 80s, but he can add and subtract velocity on it, and it has a huge break that acts almost frisbee-like at times. He also has a fringe average curveball, though to his credit he's not afraid to throw it at any point in the count. His changeup is still very much a work in progress, and it's going to need to see some improvement in order for him to handle right-handed hitters in the big leagues, but he can get pretty far with just his two primary offerings. His delivery isn't always smooth, with a slight crossfire, but he should command the ball reasonably well.
Since his conversion, the 22-year-old has been on strict pitch counts to build up his strength and stamina, topping out at 90 pitches a start late last year. He has averaged under five innings per start in the minors, and lasted just four innings in his first outing at Triple-A this season. He likely needs to prove that he can throw six or seven innings regularly before getting a big league look. He's aggressive but still needs to show he can make the necessary adjustments to handle hitters the second and third time through the order.
But once he gets fully stretched out, and if he can demonstrate that he can continue to keep the ball down and throw his slider for strikes at the big league level, he could be a future middle-of-the-rotation starter in the majors. We'll see him at some point this year.
Brad Mills, SP, Blue Jays: Drafted in the fourth round in the 2007 draft out of Arizona, Mills has put up some sick numbers in the minors; his plus secondary stuff has overmatched lower-level hitters. But he also continued to get it done in six starts at Double-A last season. He has a 1.96 ERA in 33 games as a pro with 180 strikeouts in 165 innings, and he just missed making the Jays' rotation out of spring training.
A southpaw who just turned 24, Mills' fastball sits at 88-90 mph with a little natural lefty tail, but it's mostly straight. However, his curveball and his change are his two primary offerings. His change is a plus pitch thanks to its very good tumble and Mills' ability to maintain his arm speed when he throws it. His tight curveball is a solid average pitch with good depth that he gets on top of very well, and it plays up because he can throw it for strikes, locate it in the zone, and sell it well with his delivery.
That delivery is a little funky, dealing from a high slot with a little herky-jerk motion, and slightly across his body. While it gives him a ton of deception -- he hides the ball well over the top -- it also doesn't help his fastball command, and that is going to be the key to how he handles big league batters. He has a tendency to leave fastballs up, and he won't get away with that against upper-level hitters. To his credit, he demonstrates good "pitchability" and mixes up his offerings well on the mound, but it's hard to project very good fastball command at the moment given his delivery.
He gave up six runs in 3 2/3 innings in his first start at Triple-A, and the PCL (especially his home park of Las Vegas) is not kind to pitchers who keep their fastballs in the upper part of the strike zone, but he's clearly on the fast track. He's aggressive and trusts his stuff, and profiles as a solid fourth or fifth starter in the big leagues if he can do a better job of keeping the ball down.
One of the downsides of both Cecil and Mills as far as their fantasy potential is the division they play in. They'll get no favors from the tough offenses they are going to face, which will put a damper on their potential impact. Still, they are definitely worth paying attention to.
Turning to hitters, let's take a look at a couple of teenagers in the lower-level minors with some big-time power potential.
Mike Stanton, RF, Marlins: First, the numbers: Stanton hit 39 homers and slugged .611 in the low Class A Sally League last season in his first full season as a professional, and starts this year in high Class A Jupiter. He won't turn 20 until November.
His home park of Greensboro last season is a great hitting environment, but those numbers stand out regardless. He has as much raw pop as anyone in the minors, but as opposed to players whose power we project at some point down the road, he's already tapping into it early in his career. He's always going to have a healthy amount of strikeouts, but he has shown the aptitude to make adjustments, and it will be acceptable given the power numbers he's going to produce. He became less of a free swinger and made some of those necessary adjustments as the season went on, yet still had his best homer total (10) in the final month of the season, a good sign for his development.
Stanton has a wide stance and generates great leverage in his swing, and though it does get long at times, I have seen him shorten his stroke on occasion without losing the juice in his bat. He gets the bat started well, and should hold his own against the better offspeed stuff he's going to start seeing.
He swiped only four bags last year, but there actually is some steals potential in his game as well, meaning he might not be just a one-dimensional slugger. His raw speed and athletic ability could eventually lead to 15-20 swipes a year if he's so inclined.
The bottom line (and what you really want to know) is that Stanton is not just a minor league slugger who is going to eventually strike out so much he can't display his power at the upper levels. He does project as a future mainstay in right field for the Marlins. He has a chance to move quickly if he keeps jacking balls out of the yard, and could be in the big league picture as soon as late next season. That's an aggressive timetable, to be sure, but the Marlins have never been shy about pushing their better prospects.
Angel Villalona, 1B, Giants: When evaluating a prospect, and specifically where a prospect ranks in relation to other prospects, we must determine what a player's ceiling is. Well, Villalona's is so high, it arguably puts him among the top five first-base prospects in the minors, and that's despite his 118 strikeouts compared to just 18 walks in low Class A last season. But let's put those numbers in perspective. Villalona hit .263 and led his team with 17 homers. His homer total was also his age. When you're playing in your first full-season league at 17 years old and not looking out of place, you have the chance to be special. Like Stanton, Villalona's raw power grades out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and though he's still a hacker who swings from the heels way too often, he did show improvement as the season progressed. He can turn on any fastball, but his pitch recognition still needs some work. Too often, he's aggressive and tries to make something happen with pitches he can't do anything with, but he did start showing he could go to the opposite field a bit last season, and had his best offensive output late in the year. After concerns about his conditioning when he first signed, he actually has looked better each time I've seen him, from Instructional League when he first became a pro to spring training this season. By all accounts, his work ethic has improved, and he's athletic for his size. Have I mentioned he was just 17 last year? Think of a high school junior playing Class A ball. He might be three years away, but that still puts him in the big leagues at a ridiculously young age.
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesHe's very raw, but Angel Villalona has big-time upside.