Best of the System: The Top Five Righty Starters

The Padres have legit pitching prospects at virtually every level of their farm system, but the Top 5 all have one thing in common, they are right on the cusp of making the big league club. More than half of this week's <b>Best of the System</b> had a shot at the big league roster this Spring, and all of them could see time in the very near future.

#5) Calling Chris Oxspring a fish out of water would be accurate, as long as you were talking about something other than baseball. The native Australian has been pitching in the Padres minor league system, which for those of you not thinking clearly right now is in the United States, while his family is living in the land down under. If that isn't enough incentive for Oxspring to reach the majors, and its payday, I don't know what is, and for the young right hander, that incentive appears to be working.


A four pitch pitcher (fastball, curveball, cutter/slider, and changeup) Oxspring has been quite literally globetrotting since the Padres signed him as a non-drafted free agent. He's pitched all over the Padres Minor League system, finishing last year at Triple-A Portland, was a member of the Australian Olympic Team in Greece, and had a fantastic stint in the Arizona Fall League. When Oxspring came to camp this fall, he was expected to factor in the race for the #5 spot, but pitched in only two games on the big league side, earning himself a less than spectacular 11.25 ERA. As with many Australian prospects, there have been questions about Oxspring's mental toughness, and his outings have backed up those suspicions. When Oxspring gets through the first two innings unscathed he tends to dominate, but if he runs into trouble during the first two frames he rarely pitches himself out of trouble. He will start the season at Triple-A Portland, and should factor into the Padres near future.


#4) Justin Germano was given every opportunity to win the #5 starter's job this Spring after posting a nearly 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio at Triple-A Portland in 2004 and getting a couple of opportunities with the big league club as well. His 2005 Spring Training did not go well, as he appeared in four games with the big league club and posted an ERA of 8.00, but he will start the season at Triple-A Portland and be one of the first options for Manager Bruce Bochy if the need arises for a spot starter.


At just 22 years old the future is bright for Germano, even if he profiles as a #3 starter. Germano knows, just as the Padres do, that his physical tools and gifts are not the problem, his mental approach is. After struggling some during the first half of 2004 at Portland, Germano came out in his first start after the All-Star break and threw a two hit, complete game shut out. As if that wasn't impressive enough the fact that he faced exactly two hitters over the minimum, and threw just 80 pitches, put the icing on the cake, and after the game Germano talked openly about the fact that the All Star break gave him a chance to stop thinking too much and focus on just throwing.


For Germano, 2005 at Portland won't so much be a test as it will be an audition. Even with the pickup of Tim Redding the Padres will have questions about their #5 starter, and Germano, with a strong start, could be the answer.


#3) Brian Whitaker is not a strikeout pitcher, and he hasn't posted a winning record in his last two seasons, and that is exactly why the Padres love him. Whitaker features a high 80s fastball, not overpowering, and is working on a changeup. He'll spend much of 2005 trying to refine that pitch, but it really doesn't matter, because Brian Whitaker throws a sinker, a very very good sinker, and he throws strikes.


Whitaker is the rare breed whose stuff looks better the higher he gets in the system. "As these guys progress, they quit swinging at a whole lot of bad pitches and start hitting the ball the way it is supposed to be hit. So you got a guy throwing a good sinker, they are going to hit more ground balls and he will have a better defense behind him," said a scout. Now that Whitaker is progressing, all the Padres need to do is hope that he can finally get some run support. With a WHIP closer to 1.0 than 1.5 and an attitude that never wavered despite getting support of less than three runs a game the Padres see Whitaker as the prototypical pitcher for PetCo Park, a guy who gets ground balls and lets his defense win the games for him.


#2) The fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft the Padres got Tim Stauffer at a discount (he was originally offered a $2.3 million signing bonus) after an MRI detected weakness in his pitching shoulder and he got $750,000 to sign. He took all of 2003 off to make sure the shoulder was completely healed and then made up for lost time last year by starting at Hi-A Lake Elsinore and finishing at Triple-A Portland.


How'd he do that? By throwing strikes with four pitches and showing a bulldog mentality that coaches up and down the organization love. He had a very realistic shot at becoming the Padres #5 starter until the trade early this week that brought former Astros Tim Redding to the Padres.


Stauffer features a low 90s fastball, a very good changeup, a nice cutter that he loves to throw when behind in the count, and a curveball that Stauffer is still working on, but shows signs of becoming a plus pitch. In 28 starts last season there were many number that jump out, and about the only negative one was home runs. Stauffer has a tendency to leave his fastball up in the zone, when he was in the lower tiers that didn't hurt him, but at Triple-A Portland it resulted in 15 homers in just 14 starts. Mechanics were blamed, and minor adjustments this Spring have shown results.


#1) Travis Chick came to the Padres in one of the biggest steals in recent memory. GM Kevin Towers caught the Florida Marlins when they were desperate for a #5 starter, and pawned off eternally blistered veteran Ismael Valdez to the Marlins for Chick, who at just 20 years old became one of the top Padres prospects the moment he donned a uni. At 6'3"/220lbs Chick has the size and temperament of a future #1 starter, and with a fastball that he can throw 92 comfortably and 94-95 when he needs to he has the stuff to be a #1 as well.


Chick's most attractive attribute is, curiously, his changeup, which he lacks confidence in, but is a plus plus pitch when it's on. He will start the season in Hi-A Lake Elsinore, and move to Double-A Mobile as soon as he's ready, which could mean just a handful of starts in the California League, if he throws his change often (which the Padres will force him to do) and well (which they hope throwing it often will lead to).


It is rare to find a kid who can't legally drink that is so polished, and the Padres know it, so they'll take their time before they throw Chick into a Major League situation, but it's hard for Padres officials to contain their excitement about Chick. This season will be all about teaching Chick to not overuse a very good fastball, and gain confidence in both the changeup, and his slider, which he tends to overthrow at times, causing it to flatten out. When he does those things, the sky is the limit for Chick, who could find himself not just in the Padres rotation, but near the top of it, as soon as 2007.


Just missing the Cut:

Vern Sterry is starting just his second season in the Padres organization after being drafted out of NC State but pitched his way right out of Rookie League Eugene and into a playoff race at Lo-A Fort Wayne. His numbers are solid, and his attitude is something that everybody in the organization loves, watch for him to make big strides in 2005.


Jared Wells has great stuff, nobody questions that, but endurance and dedication have been a problem for the young righty. Expect a Hi-A Lake Elsinore beginning, and with a little more arm strength, and a little harder head, a quick promotion for Wells.


Eddie Bonine does something very few pitchers in the minors do, throw a knuckleball, and that is both the most intriguing and frustrating thing about Bonine. While not a Tim Wakefield-esque ‘All Knuckler' pitcher, Bonine's knuckleball does make it tougher to evaluate the young righty, since there is very little to compare him to. If he consistently throws that pitch close enough to the strike zone for hitter to offer at it, and continues command of his other pitches, he could move quickly as well.

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