Sizing up the left-handed pitching prospects

In this feature article, Lone Star Dugout analyzes the Rangers' top left-handed starting pitching prospects. Which have the highest upside? Which ones are ready to make a Major League impact soon? Who needs to make their mark quickly?

Highest Ceiling

Kasey Kiker: The 19-year-old Kiker is undoubtedly the top left-handed pitching prospect in the Rangers organization. The club's first round pick in 2006, Kiker entered the organization as a celebrated prep hurler with three well-developed pitches.

Although Kiker stands just 5-foot-10, his stuff rates as some of the system's best. The left-hander throws a fastball, a curveball, and a changeup. Kiker struggled with command in his professional debut last summer, but showed improvement with Single-A Clinton in 2007. Part of the reason for Kiker's improved command was the elimination of his high leg kick, which drew comparisons to Florida Marlins hurler Dontrelle Willis. The mechanical change also helped Kiker hold runners on base, an area he struggled with in 2006. Consequentially, Kiker's velocity dropped slightly, as his fastball sat in the 90-92 range for the majority of the 2007 season.

Kiker pitched well with Clinton in ‘07, as he posted a 2.90 ERA with 112 strikeouts in 96 1/3 innings. Even though he did show improvement with his command, the lefty still has a ways to go with each of his three pitches. Kiker currently profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but his ceiling could rise as he progresses. Aside from continuing to develop his command, the Alabama native could see a spike in velocity as he grows accustomed to his new mechanics.

Closest to Majors

Matt Harrison: Acquired from the Braves at the trade deadline in 2007, Harrison has yet to appear in an official game as a member of the Rangers organization. The former Braves prospect has outstanding command of slightly above-average stuff. Because of this, he has garnered comparisons to future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. The 22-year-old works with a fastball that tops out in the low-90's, a changeup, a curveball, and a slider. Though he is a left-handed pitcher, Harrison has struggled to retire left-handed hitters throughout his professional career. The 6-foot-5 hurler recently began throwing a slider in hopes that it will increase his effectiveness against lefties. Harrison's ceiling is in the middle of a big league rotation and he figures to at least be a solid number four or five.

A.J. Murray: Murray seems an unlikely candidate to be on any prospect list after missing the entire 2004 and 2006 seasons because of shoulder problems. The 25-year-old began his 2007 season in the bullpen for Triple-A Oklahoma. Murray performed well for the RedHawks, putting up a 3.08 ERA in 41 appearances, spanning 52 2/3 innings. The Utah native goes after hitters with an upper-80's fastball, a plus changeup, and a decent breaking ball. Because of his willingness to attack hitters, excellent command, and three-pitch repertoire, the Rangers prefer to have Murray in a starting role. The lefty made two starts for the big league club in late September and he surrendered four earned runs in 11 innings. If Murray is able to remain healthy – which has been his biggest obstacle since being drafted in 2000 – he could develop into a back of the rotation starter. If he is never able to stick in a major league rotation, Murray at least has the makings of a dependable left-handed middle reliever.

The "Sleepers"

Ballard has a good curve.
Mike Ballard: The Virginia product may not have posted dominant numbers in his full-season debut, but he did everything asked of him and finished the year in the Double-A Texas League playoffs. Ballard works down in the zone with an average fastball that sits around 86-88 MPH and tops out at 90. The lefty's money pitch is a big curveball that checks in around the low-70's. He also mixes in a changeup for good measure. Ballard, 23, spent the majority of the season learning to attack and back hitters off the plate. He has advanced command, which was shown in his 131:36 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Single-A Clinton and High-A Bakersfield. Ballard's ceiling is relatively low, but his curveball and command makes him one to watch.

Derek Holland: Holland didn't get the attention some of the other Spokane power arms did this past season, but his numbers were just as good. The lefty, who recently turned 21-years-old, had a 3.32 ERA for the Indians and recorded a whopping 83 punchouts in 67 innings pitched. With fine stuff, Holland's numbers appear to be legitimate. The former draft-and-follow signee has a low-90's fastball that has topped out at 93-94 MPH. He also uses a slider and a changeup.

Beau Jones: A native of Louisiana, Jones is yet another promising player picked up by the Rangers in the Mark Teixeira trade with the Braves. The former first round pick struggled at Single-A Rome in 2006, as he issued 83 walks in 110 2/3 innings. Jones repeated the league as a reliever in '07 and showed much improved control, walking only 12 batters in 48 2/3 innings. The Rangers converted the 21-year-old back into a starter upon acquiring him and he was 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA in seven appearances – six starts – at Single-A Clinton. Jones' fastball typically sits in the low-90's, but he has shown the ability to dial it up a notch at times throughout his pro career. In addition to his developing changeup, Jones uses a hard curveball as his strikeout pitch. The left-hander must improve his command of all three pitches, but with the makings of a plus fastball and plus curveball, Jones could be a candidate to break out at any time.

Need to Make Their Move

Swanson's fast start was slowed by Tommy John surgery.
Glenn Swanson: This classification may be unfair for Swanson since he was performing so well and had been promoted to High-A Bakersfield after just seven starts in Clinton. However, Swanson – who initially signed as a fifth-year senior out of UC Irvine – will be 25-years-old before he throws another pitch in a live game. Swanson's stuff is far from overpowering, but he is able to locate well and keep hitters off-balance. The 6-foot-1 pitcher worked out of the starting rotation in 2007 and had a 3.87 ERA in 14 starts between Single-A Clinton and Bakersfield. Swanson surrendered 84 hits in 83 2/3 innings, walked 22 and struck out 83. The San Diego native features a fastball that runs between 84-88 miles per hour, a curveball, and a changeup. The bullpen is likely Swanson's long-term destination, but it will be interesting to see which role he assumes when he returns from Tommy John surgery in 2008.

The Jury is Still Out

Zach Phillips: Even though the jury is technically still out on Phillips, he is one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in the organization. The 21-year-old had an inconsistent season with Single-A Clinton in 2006 and repeated the league in 2007. Phillips was much improved, as he had a 2.91 ERA and fanned 157 batters in 151 2/3 innings. A product of Sacramento Community College, Phillips has solid command of an 89-91 MPH sinking fastball. Not only does Phillips induce a fair amount of ground ball outs, but he surrendered just 11 home runs in two seasons – nearly 300 combined innings – with the L-Kings. Phillips' strikeout pitch is a big-breaking curveball that rates as one of the system's best breaking pitches. He also throws a changeup, which currently rates as average. Phillips struggles to hold runners at times because of his deliberate, herky-jerky motion. The young southpaw appears to be ticketed for the back end of a big league rotation.

Miguel De Los Santos and Geuris Grullon: The Latin American pair entered the season as the top two left-handed pitchers the Rangers had signed in the international market over the past few seasons. Unfortunately, both had rough professional debuts in the United States. De Los Santos, 19, made three starts for the Rookie level Arizona Rangers before undergoing Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his left elbow. The 6-foot-5 Grullon, 17, was able to remain healthy, but his numbers were less than phenomenal. The native of the Dominican Republic posted an 8.14 ERA with 16 walks and 25 strikeouts in 21 innings. Grullon showed flashes of promise, but he often struggled with control. Despite the rough beginnings, both pitchers are immensely talented and extremely young.


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