Posted on January 15, 2014 at 12:41 PM
Later this week I’ll be looking at triple-A fireballer Wilmer Font more in more depth, as part of the prospect countdown– and so, in the spirit of being thematic, we’ll look at his fellow flamethrowers.
If you were giving an award for the best changeup in the league, it would be a hard choice between lefty sidearmer Alex Claudio and cannon-armed righty Lisalverto Bonilla. Bonilla came to the Rangers as one of two pitchers acquired from Philadelphia for third baseman Michael Young in the winter of 2012, and was assigned to triple-A Round Rock out of spring training, but struggled to find consistent results there, walking over half as many batters as he struck out. In June, Bonilla was re-assigned to Frisco, where he found his stride, striking out 50 batters across 30.1 innings pitched, and only walking nine.
Bonilla’s fastball averaged around 93 MPH, though he topped out at 97 while in Frisco, and his devastating changeup sits around 10 MPH slower, with major swing-and-miss movement. He also throws a slider and a curveball, but only really as pitches to throw a hitter’s timing off before unleashing either of his main weapons. In the Arizona Fall League, Bonilla allowed no runs, striking out eight in three innings pitched. A recent addition to the 40-man roster, Bonilla could start the year in Round Rock again, though a strong spring may set him up as a dark-horse MLB bullpen candidate.
Keone Kela had an interesting 2013. He started the year with the low-A Hickory Crawdads, but only pitched in 12 games before hopping around the system for developmental reasons. Kela’s calling card is his fastball, a fairly straight pitch which is largely effective thanks to pure velocity. With Hickory, Kela worked in the 93-97 range, and his limited time this season allowed him to sit closer to 96-99 in the Arizona Fall League, even hitting 100 MPH once. Kela’s secondary pitch is not distinct at this point, a “slurvy” breaking ball that usually arrives in the 79-84 mph range. During his brief stints across the system, Kela racked up a K:BB ratio of 52:15 and only allowed one home run in 39 total innings pitched. There’s some deception in his delivery, though as the year progressed, a formerly-large leg kick that aided his delivery changed, removing some of the trickery but aiding in repeatability. 2014 will hopefully be a breakout year for Kela, and he could end the season pitching in Frisco, especially if he tames and improves his secondary pitch, whatever it turns out being.
Jose Valdespina began his career as a starter, but in 2013 transitioned to relief full-time and picked up a few miles-per-hour to go with the shortened inning-load. In Hickory last year as a 21-year-old, he had an ERA of 5.70, but struck out twice as many people as he walked. Something may have clicked in August, when he pitched 10.1 innings and only allowed three runs, and only one home run. His fastball averaged 91-95 in the season, though his control of the pitch needs refinement. His second pitch occasionally has depth, but more often resembles a slurvy breaker than the true curveball he has flashed at times, showing more “roll” than depth. Valdespina will most likely stay on the coast this year, possibly starting the year back with Hickory to see if he can repeat his end-of-2013 results, with a mid-season promotion to Myrtle Beach possible.
Sam Wolff, last year’s sixth-round pick out of the University of New Mexico, only had 10 games with Spokane and 11 games with Hickory in 2013, but his pitching drew eyes very quickly. According to Mark Parker of the Hickory Daily Record, Wolff consistently sat at 94-96, occasionally hitting 98, and showed a sharp 12-to-6 curveball, and he hit his spot with both pitches regularly. Spring training will be the chance to see what he’s got, and if his stuff matches his hype, he could move quickly through the system. Currently it’s unknown as to whether he’ll start or come out of the bullpen next season, but either way he’s a pitcher to keep an eye on.
21-year-old Kelvin Vasquez is another pitcher with velocity but no set role. In his first stateside season, he started eight games with the Crawdads while coming from the pen once, and then moved to short-season Spokane, where he used his 90-95 MPH fastball, combined with a slurvy breaker and an occasional changeup to strike out 72 batters in 63.1 innings, despite lower-half mechanical inconsistencies at the beginning of the year. Vasquez started all but two of the games he pitched in, and could find a niche in either a rotation or the bullpen, most likely as part of a pitching-stacked low-A Hickory club.
As with all pitching prospects, there is no set-in-stone future for this group, and the coming season could bring both breakout success and regressions. With major league ETAs from 2014 to 2018, these fireballers could be fun to watch for years to come.
Kate Morrison is a recent Baylor graduate currently working as a freeelance writer. She likes minor league ballparks, music and the nickname 'Roogie.' That last one will be explained in due time. You can follow her on Twitter at @unlikelyfanatic.