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State of the Mets’ farm: Starting pitching

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The Mets got more out of their minor league starting pitching depth than anyone expected coming into 2016.

Gordon Donovan

The biggest surprise of the 2016 season was that the Mets could lose three-fifths of their starting rotation, not get a single inning from Zack Wheeler, and still compete for a Wild Card. That’s thanks in no small part to Seth Lugo, who didn’t even make our preseason top 25 prospect list. Lugo has lost his rookie eligiblity, but the story of his rise is both informative and cautionary.

We’ve long known that Lugo could spin a curveball, but the report was that the fastball was fringy, meaning it would sit more in the upper-eighties and touch the low-nineties. We were surprised when Lugo was added to the 40-man roster this past offseason, but we were more surprised when the Mets called him up and he was touching 97. It could be that he is now fully recovered from 2012 spinal surgery. It could be Dan Warthen’s black magic. The lesson is that sometimes the profile changes. We can’t project a 5-mile-per-hour uptick in velocity for every prospect. But as I wrote yesterday, the longer we do this, the more we learn. Let’s take a look at some of the rookie-eligible starting pitching prospects in the Mets’ system.

Likely Starters

Robert Gsellman, RHP

Gsellman has fallen into that Steven Matz sweet spot, having thrown enough innings for us to know he’s a good major league starter, but not enough to lose his rookie eligibility. This is good for the state of the farm because Robert Gsellman is really good. At the time he was called up, I wrote:

In the long-term I’m bullish on Gsellman. Given the Mets’ penchant for developing sliders, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that pitch develop into a plus offering. If he can realize some of the reported velocity gains as well, we could be looking at an average big league starter rather than a sixth starter safety valve or future reliever

This is a situation where watching Gsellman pitch informed the report in a beneficial way. He started throwing a slider this year and by the time he got to Vegas it had developed into what appeared to be at least an average (by major league standards) pitch. Velocity gains were conceivable; we’ve been writing and talking about his low effort delivery for a while now and had reports of him touching 98. So it wasn’t all that surprising when Gsellman was sitting at 94-95 and his slider was coming in around 88-89 (okay, that was surprising) and being a swing-and-miss pitch. At this point, it’s fair to say Gsellman belongs in a major league rotation, and we may have been light on projecting his upside to be just an average major league starter.

Thomas Szapucki, LHP

I got to see Szapucki firsthand after he was promoted to Low-A Brooklyn and it was impressive. It doesn’t require much projection to envision him making it to the majors. He attacks hitters with a low three-quarters arm slot and a fairly smooth delivery. The fastball touches 97 and mostly sits in the mid-90s with some command. His curveball did more than flash plus, it looked consistently good. The change was the clear third pitch but it did flash plus as well.

It’s probably worthwhile to pause for a second to talk about projection. When a pitch flashes plus, it’s an indicator that with more consistency the pitch could develop into a plus offering. A lot of what pitcher development is all about is gaining consistency. Another question about projection we must discuss is the Warthen Slider. Just about every big time pitching prospect who has spent time with Dan Warthen has added his slider to their repertoire. Can we blindly assume every prospect will add a slider? Maybe not, but it’s always a possibility, particularly for a prospect with an ideal arm-slot for it and some velocity.

This all applies to Szapucki in a few ways. I’m confident today saying that, barring injury, Szapucki will pitch in the majors. What that role will be depends on the consistency he develops with the secondaries and the command of his fastball. If he does that, and he develops a Warthen slider, then it’s a top of the rotation projection. This is where I know I am out of my depth. The ability to determine where Szapucki will land on the spectrum of reliever to top of the rotation starter when he is this far from the majors is where you make your money.

Justin Dunn, RHP

The reports on Dunn out of Brooklyn have been mixed. The fastball velocity is plus to plus-plus, according to the 20-80 scouting scale, but it lacks late life and movement. The slider is good enough to miss bats in the New York Penn League, but is it a slider or a curve? The change flashes good, but sits “meh”. Dunn doesn’t have the ideal starter’s build, but at 6’1” he has enough size to make it work. I’m confident an offseason of professional tutelage and preparation to be a starter will benefit Dunn. There’s enough here to confidently say he will pitch in the majors in one capacity or another, and there really isn’t all that much that has to go right for it to be as a starter.

If everything breaks just right...

Andrew Church, RHP

Church emerged from the confines of extended spring training in spectacular fashion, striking out 15 in his first two starts over 12.2 innings, allowing just two runs and walking none. He was quickly bumped up to High-A St. Lucie where he struggled a bit before being sent back to Columbia where he continued to dominate. The profile here is tough to peg given the varying fastball velocities I’ve seen. In his first couple starts in Columbia I saw him as high as 95, though working more 91-93. Later in the season it was more 88-89, and then in his spot start in triple-A at the end of the year it was down to 86-87. The good news is his slider appears to be a plus offering, which helps make up for his change which still has a ways to go. It’s an exciting profile given that we had mostly written Church off after he failed to do much of anything since being drafted 48th overall in the 2013 draft. If the fastball can sit up in the higher end of the range we’ve seen, there’s a likely reliever in there and a starter if everything develops perfectly. He’ll likely spend the bulk of 2017 in the abyss that is St. Lucie, where there’s no MiLB.tv or public sector scouts to get reports to us.

Merandy Gonzalez, RHP

I haven’t seen Merandy pitch, but I’ve spoken to a couple of people who have. His fastball sits in the 93-94 range and can get up to 96. He has a curveball and a change, with the former being the more advanced pitch at present. Consistency with the secondaries, particularly the change, is the current issue, which isn’t much of a surprise. There’s starter potential here, but a lot will have to break right for it to be realized.

With a velocity bump, it could be exciting

Harol Gonzalez, RHP

People like Harol Gonzalez. Whether it’s the mini-Pedro delivery he has going on or the big hair, there’s an appealing aesthetic to watching him pitch. Harol has a full arsenal of pitches; fastball, curveball, slider, and, apparently, two changeups. It was far too much for the NYPL and his 2.01 ERA was evidence of that. It seems the velocity varied from start to start, because I’ve heard of him sitting from the high-80s to the low-90s. Harol is the type of prospect whose pitchability should take him up to double-A, where if the fastball velocity does come it won’t be hard to envision him as a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Ricky Knapp, RHP

If there’s one starter in the system who could make a Seth Lugo-esque leap next season, it’s Knapp. As I wrote yesterday, he has a four pitch mix that includes a slider, curveball, and change, all of which he appears to be able to command fairly well. His fastball sits in the 88-92 range from a delivery that’s as low effort as can be. His size is sub-optimal at just 6’1”, but it’s not hard to envision him adding a couple ticks to the fastball. If he’s able to do that, combined with the command of his secondaries, he could become the type of sixth starter safety valve we hoped Logan Verrett could be.

Under the radar

Marcos Molina, RHP

Molina burst onto the scene in 2014, striking out over thirty percent of the batters he faced in the New York Penn League, and all while being just 19 years-old. But he missed most of 2015 and all of the 2016 regular season following Tommy John surgery, falling out of sight and out of mind to many prospect followers. That is until recently, when Molina popped up in the Arizona Fall League sitting 91-93 with his fastball. Prior to the injury, he basically featured a five pitch mix that included two fastballs, a curve, a slider, and a change. We’ll have to keep an eye on his progress, because a healthy Molina is one of the best pitching prospects in the system.

Recent draftees

The 2016 Brooklyn rotation may be the next wave of pitching prospects for the system, and the next next wave may have been in the 2017 draft class. I've already discussed Dunn, but Anthony Kay was the Mets’ next selection with the compensation pick they received when Daniel Murphy signed with the Nats. Kay is an advanced college arm who works in the low-90s, but will likely miss all of 2017 following Tommy John surgery. Kay’s post-draft physical was bad enough that the Mets were able to save enough money to sign Cameron Planck, an ideally sized high-schooler who has touched 96, and Matt Cleveland, a 6’5” high-schooler who touches 95 and can work consistently in the low-90s.

The emergence of Lugo and Gsellman have done wonders for the Mets’ starting pitching depth in the system. They should be able to provide enough depth to allow the younger arms to mature (Including guys I didn't write about like Chris Flexen). When it comes to starting pitching, the state of the farm is good. Gsellman aside, there’s a potential top of the rotation starter in Szapucki, a high upside first round pick in Dunn, and plenty of projectable arms who could someday crack a big league rotation.