These numbers seem largely meaningless, but they have a point. They are, in order, the total number of innings pitched by left-handed relievers for the 2011, 2010, and 2009 Texas Rangers. It's safe, therefore, to assume that when the Rangers break camp before their April 6th kickoff, the bullpen group is going to include a pitcher who throws with his left hand (and I'm not counting Yu Darvish and his magical left-handed bullpen sessions in this.).
However, looking at the current crop of lefty relievers in camp, it's clear no one clear horse has presented itself. There's probably a good reason for that; the field is composed of a fair number of replacement-level veterans (Neal Cotts, Mitch Stetter, and Joe Beimel have combined for 1.9 Wins Above Replacement level, for their careers, combined- and 1.6 of that total is represented by Beimel's 2007-2008 seasons) and fairly anonymous prospects.
This series will serve to make those prospects less anonymous, because they shouldn't be anonymous. First up, Miguel De Los Santos, he of the sexy name and sexy strikeouts.
Miguel De Los Santos
DOB: 7/10/1988 Age on Opening Day: 23
Spent last season: Between Myrtle Beach (A+) and Frisco (AA)
Season stats: 19 starts, 94.1 IP, 142 K's, 46 BB's (3.09 K:BB ratio), 6 HR's allowed.
Why he's ideal for the role: Miggy does something very few other human beings can do; he can strike out 35 percent of all batters that step into the box against him. Five major-league relievers struck out batters at that rate in 2011- Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jensen, David Robertson, Sergio Santos, and Koji Uehara. That's an excellent list to be on. The list of major-league starters to strike out batters at a rate equal to Miggy's is even more select, as it doesn't exist. As in there were exactly zero qualified starters in the majors who struck batters out at a rate equal to or greater than what De Los Santos did in 2011.
(And, yes, before you say anything, Koji is a legitimately very good pitcher.)
Look at it this way- for every 27 outs De Los Santos gets while on the mound, over his career, 14 have come from strikeouts. When Miggy is on the mound, the most likely outcome of each plate appearance is a strikeout. He has accumulated more strikeouts than walks plus hits over his career.
Strikeouts are kind of his thing, is what I am saying here.
Additionally, taking Miggy deep is not an easy task. He allowed 6 homers in his 94 innings last year, but 4 of those came during a 28 inning stint at the end of the season in Frisco. The Hi-A to AA jump is often touted as the most difficult to make in baseball, so you can probably credit that to adjustment (as well as the vagaries of small samples). For his career, he's allowed 12 home runs in 274 innings- a rate of .4 per 9 innings.
For most relievers, one devastating pitch and a second that can play at an average level is generally enough to carve out a long career of one-inning appearances. De Los Santos has that, and then some. His changeup is simply stupid. It is most likely the best pitch in the Rangers' farm system right now- and it's not out of the question that it's the best pitch in the Rangers sytem, major leagues included. It even has a cool, mysterious, and possibly magical back story, as De Los Santos really discovered it during a Visa-driven 2009 exodus to the Dominican Leagues.
While no one really knows the true story, I choose to believe it involved Miguel getting lost in a swamp one night and engaging in a riddle contest in the dark with a strange and mysterious creature that continues to haunt him. His prize in this riddle contest was a magical changeup. Or maybe he practiced it a lot in a low-pressure environment, I don't know.
Either way, his change is spectacular. His fastball is also good enough to rely on as a reliever, sitting in the high 80s to low 90s as a starter (which means he can probably hold it in the low 90's in relief stints.) Add in a curve that can at least be a show-me pitch (and could possibly be better than the fastball, overall), and Miggy's got a fairly Major League ready repertoire to back up the gaudy strikeout totals.
Why he's not a good for for the role: The downside to striking out an insane amount of batters is that high walk totals almost always follow, and Miggy is no exception. For his career, De Los Santos has averaged 4.9 walks per 27 outs, facing minor leaguers who tend to not be very selective. While there are relievers who survive, even thrive, despite high walk totals, their rarity highlights the danger in assuming Miggy is one of them. In other words, there's only one Carlos Marmol, and there's likely only one Carlos Marmol for a very good reason.
As well, the bullpen's token lefty will likely spend very sizable time pitching to lefthanded batters, as Maddux and Wash tend to lean towards a conservative, platoon- and role-oriented bullpen. This negates one of Miggy's greatest strengths, in that his changeup is so good he's actually stronger against right-handed batters than lefties. For his career long-term, this is good; as it can help him escape the lefty-specialist role and grow into a larger one. For 2012, it's not so great, because his skillset is likely larger and more valuable than the role will allow.
Tying into that is the fact that Miggy is not absolutely destined for a bullpen role. His ultimate fate could well be that of a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues. While this is more of a ceiling-type projection (and prospects really rarely hit their ceilings), his three-pitch mix and strong secondary pitches can make you imagine him holding off batters for several trips through the order. Miggy has been developing as a starter since returning from his changeup-developing (and possibly monster-vanquishing) sojourn to the Dominican.
It behooves a club, for several reasons, to keep prospects on the path that leads them to their most valuable development (this is why moving third base prospect Mike Olt to first base is likely a bad idea) and for Miggy that means starting, even if it means working in the minors as a starter rather than the majors as a reliever.
So, what can Miggy project to be? If you have his absolute ceiling in mind, as a lefty starter who relies on middling velocity and excellent secondaries to survive a bad walk rate, imagine him as a Wandy Rodriguez facsimile. Wandy is homer prone (a trait De Los Santos hasn't shown) but survives using a fastball/curveball/change combo, like Miggy.
If you want a most-likely best-case scenario, something that falls on the upper end of development outcomes but at a more likely spot than the top-end, you can imagine one of the relievers listed above. David Robertson's statistical profile looks simiar to Miggy's- Robertson's career k-rate is 31% compared to Miggy's 37% (and keep in mind that even the best performers suffer some degradation to their stats as they move up levels), Robertson's BB-rate is 12.2% compared to 12.7% for Miggy, and Robertson allows .58 home runs per nine innings pitched compared to Miggy's .4.
His most likely outcome, given the grave outlook on prospect development that everyone should acknowledge, you can imagine one his Rangers' bullpen competitors, Michael Kirkman; floating between a long man, mid-relief, and LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY) roles depending on the variance of his control, and riding the bus between AAA and the majors when needed (or not needed).
So as not to end on a sour if realistic note, let's end by imagine Miggy's Dominican swap quest that lead to his attainment of that magical, sweet changeup again... there was probably a troll involved. Bet it had a hammer.
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Scott Feldman's quest to develop his magic cutter probably happened in Amish country and involved a lot of barn-raisin', just guessing by his facial hair. Joseph Ursery's quest for magical tweets continues at @thejoeursery.
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