Sizing up the left-handed relief prospects

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

Note: For accuracy purposes, only prospects that have played professional baseball in the U.S. are eligible for this feature. These lists were compiled before Fall Instructional League, and any 2009 draft picks or international signees that have yet to play are ineligible.

Highest Ceiling

Geuris Grullon: It's important to note that this doesn't necessarily mean Grullon is the Rangers' top left-handed relief prospect, but he undoubtedly has the most potential. The 19-year-old was the crown jewel of the club's 2006 international pitching crop along with right-handers Wilmer Font and Carlos Pimentel. While Grullon's development has lagged behind his two Latin counterparts, he still has excellent raw stuff.

Grullon's fastball sits between 88-92 mph, topping out at 94 on occasion, but it's the outstanding movement that makes his heater special. The Dominican Republic native notched a 4.25:1 groundout-to-flyout ratio with the AZL Rangers in '08, largely due to the whiffle ball-like movement on the fastball. Grullon, who throws from a three-quarters arm angle, also mixes in a solid sweeping slider, a curveball, and a changeup.

The long, lanky 6-foot-5, 185-pound hurler is lots of arms and legs, and he's had trouble with mechanics in the past, leading to major control issues. Grullon's control has improved gradually over the last three seasons [from 6.9 walks per nine in 2007 to 5.6 in 2009], thanks in part to the Rangers cutting out his windup and having him pitch exclusively from the stretch. Despite the excellent stuff, Grullon's command is still spotty to say the least, and he allowed 39 hits in 27.1 innings with Spokane this summer.

With a 6.13 earned-run average in 72.0 career innings at the short-season levels, Grullon is looking like a bit of a longshot to make it. But he is still just 19-years-old and has incredible natural ability. Because of that talent combined with his youth, he'll have plenty more opportunities to succeed.

Closest to Majors

Phillips improved his command in '09.
Zach Phillips: The 23-year-old made the transition to the bullpen this season, and he immediately broke out as one of the organization's top relief prospects. Phillips made his High-A debut in 2008, pitching in the rotation for Bakersfield. He was inconsistent, posting a 5.54 ERA in 144.2 innings, but it was the 161 hits and 73 walks that were the biggest issue. Although his stuff had remained virtually the same as previous years, he was walking more batters while striking out fewer.

Phillips came out this season and was virtually unhittable for the Blaze, surrendering just 19 hits in 44 innings of work, leading to a 1.23 ERA. While Phillips' velocity ticked up a notch out of the ‘pen [from 86-88 mph to 88-90], the improvement was all about command. The Sacramento native often fell behind hitters and his two-seam fastball sat up in the zone too often. This summer, he took on a more aggressive approach, consistently attacking the bottom half of the strike zone and nailing his spots. Phillips has had a good curveball since entering the Rangers' system, but his changeup is beginning to make the difference. The lefty's change has gradually progressed over the last few years and it has developed into a legitimate plus pitch. Though Cal League lefties were just 4-for-66 with zero extra-base hits against Phillips this season, the change helped him be tough on righties, as he held them to a .180 clip between High-A and Double-A.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound hurler had solid overall results with Frisco [1.60 ERA in 33.2 innings], but he again showed a tendency to fall behind hitters a bit, leading to 19 walks. Phillips' control gradually improved as he adjusted to the Double-A level. In the end, it's all about fastball command for Phillips. If he can throw quality strikes down in the zone with his two-seamer, his curve and change will allow him to be an effective Major League reliever.

Corey Young: One of the more polished relievers in the system, Young reached Double-A Frisco just a little more than halfway through his first full season of professional baseball. The former Seton Hall Pirate has an upper-80s sinker that touches 90 and 91 mph on occasion. Fastball command was his primary issue in a late-season promotion to Double-A Frisco that resulted in a 7.71 ERA in 21.0 innings. With his deceptive delivery, Young's sinker is an effective ground ball pitch when he commands it.

In addition to the deception and fastball movement, Young's curveball makes him a nightmare for left-handed batters. The 76-77 mph curveball is sharp and it is a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch. The 22-year-old also mixes in an occasional changeup. Young began to settle in late in the season with Frisco, and he should open the 2010 season as a member of the RoughRiders' bullpen.

The "Sleepers"

Ortiz isn't a typical 5-foot-7 hurler.
Joseph Ortiz: The 5-foot-7, 175-pound Venezuelan opened the 2009 season with Single-A Hickory [the same level he finished at in '08], but he was placed on the disabled list and sent to Arizona for rehab after four shaky appearances. Ortiz surfaced at mid-season with short-season Spokane, where he was 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA in 36.2 relief innings.

Ortiz initially turned heads when he posted a 1.97 ERA in 32.0 frames for Single-A Clinton as an 17-year-old last summer. The southpaw struggled with command at the outset in Spokane this year, but he eventually settled down and finished with a 38:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the Indians.

The diminutive 19-year-old [his birthday is in mid-August] doesn't just get strong results–he also has legitimate stuff. Ortiz has above-average command of an 87-91 mph fastball and a hard, late-breaking slider that he uses to get in on the hands of right-handed batters. Ortiz had intriguing splits against righties this season–in 91 official at-bats, he walked zero and held them to a .220 average.

Need to Make Their Move

Beau Jones: The only member of the Mark Teixeira trade that has yet to see time in the Major Leagues, Jones took some steps forward–after taking a step backward–this season. A handful of poor June outings, coupled with below-average command, prompted the Rangers to send their relief prospect back to High-A Bakersfield.

Jones has battled command issues for the majority of his career, but he appeared to be a changed pitcher with the Blaze. In 16.1 innings, Jones pounded the strike zone with all three of his pitches, and he gave up just eight hits, walked only two, and fanned 26. Upon returning to Frisco, he was much improved. After re-joining the ‘Riders, Jones posted the following line: 20.2 IP, 17 H, 5 ER, 7 BB, 19 K.

The 23-year-old doesn't touch the mid-90s like he used to [he generally sits around 88-91], but Jones was aggressive and showed the ability to spot his fastball on the corners during the second half. His changeup is a legitimate plus big-league pitch, and his slider improved as the season progressed. Jones has the stuff to pitch in the Majors, but command and the development of his slider will decide whether or not he reaches it.

The Jury is Still Out

Falcon has a great changeup.
Ryan Falcon: The UNC-Greensboro product has done nothing but produce since joining the organization as a 29th round pick in the 2007 Draft. Falcon posted a 2.68 earned-run average with just six walks and 62 strikeouts in 47 innings during his debut summer with short-season Spokane. He had success while making the jump to High-A Bakersfield in '08, and he posted a 2.44 ERA while repeating the level in 2009. Falcon logged 66.1 frames, allowing 56 hits, walking 13, and striking out 70.

In a system loaded with high-ceiling arms, Falcon gets lost in the shuffled a bit, and that's why he has spent two full seasons in Bakersfield despite the strong results. The 25-year-old's fastball is just 83-86 mph on a typical day, but he spots it well and jams hitters inside, leading to an incredible amount of infield popups. Despite Falcon's consistently huge fly ball rates in the hitter-friendly Cal League [0.39 groundouts per flyout this season], he doesn't give up many home runs because most fly balls don't leave the infield.

Falcon has a plus changeup that rates as one of the system's best offspeed pitches, and he appears to be relying on it less and less. The change helped him limit right-handed hitters to a .223 average this season–19 points lower than lefties hit him. The southpaw also uses a curveball against lefties.

Yoon-Hee Nam: The South Korea native made early headlines this season after his phenomenal May in which he surrendered just two runs on eight hits in 25 innings. Nam ended up posting a 1.62 earned-run average in the first half, yielding 27 hits in 50 innings [.155 BAA]. He came back to earth in the second half, however, with a 6.57 ERA in 38.1 frames. Nam's strikeout rate improved [from 9.9 per nine innings to 11.0], but he was also much more hittable [.302 BAA].

The jury remains out on Nam because his 85-87 mph fastball is far from overpowering, although his deceptive delivery allows it to sneak up on hitters a bit. Nam has a four-pitch arsenal with solid overall command. His big, slow 66-69 mph curveball has a chance to be a plus pitch at the upper levels–it was certainly devastating to the Sally League hitters. Nam's most underrated pitch is his 76-77 mph changeup with good action that allowed him to be effective against righties. Feeling he also needed a harder breaking ball to show hitters, Nam added an upper-70s slider this season that he used sparingly.

Because Nam's fastball velocity is below average, he'll need to prove himself at every stop. The 6-foot-2 prospect threw just 40.2 innings with Spokane in '08, and he more than doubled that this year, so his poor second half may have been more of a fatigue issue. He should make the jump to Bakersfield next season, but he may not be seriously challenged until he reaches Double-A Frisco.

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