Sizing up the right-handed starters (part 3)

Which prospects have the highest upside? Which ones are ready to make a Major League impact soon? Who needs to make their mark quickly? Lone Star Dugout takes a look at six high-ceiling right-handed prospects in part three of this three-part series.

Highest Ceiling

Neftali Feliz: After hearing about Feliz's extaordinary talent for the last few years, Rangers fans got an up-close view of him in the Majors last season. At this point, not much else really needs to be said about Feliz, but because he logged just 31 total innings last season, he still remains a prospect by the standard definition [50 innings pitched, regardless of service time].

On September 8 of last season, Neftali Feliz began to appear mortal. After allowing a run to blow a save that night, he would go on to surrender multiple runs in two of his next three appearances. That Feliz could struggle was almost mind-boggling, particularly after his incredible start.

Even with the slight struggles, the powerful right-hander ended up with a 1.74 earned-run average on the season. In those 31 innings, he yielded just 13 hits, walked only eight, and fanned 39. After looking at those numbers, it makes one wonder how his ERA was as high as 3.49 in Triple-A, and how minor league hitters got him at a .240 clip last season.

Feliz has already helped the Rangers.
The simple answer: Feliz's stuff was, across the board, better after his promotion to the Major Leagues. Feliz appears to like the big stage. When he is particularly fired up for an outing or situation, his fastball can touch 100-101 mph, and he makes it appear almost effortless. When he isn't, Feliz sits comfortably in the 93-98 mph range as a starter and 95-98-ish out of the bullpen.

More than that, though, Feliz's curveball and changeup both showed drastic improvement with the Rangers. While both pitches had been inconsistent over the last few years, he was consistently throwing both offspeed pitches for strikes after his big league promotion. Feliz looked like a pitcher who could throw three above-average pitches for strikes whenever he wanted. The current question is not only whether it will last, but also whether he can do it as a starting pitcher.

The Rangers have asked Feliz to enter Spring Training prepared to work as a starting pitcher. But he is still likely to open the season as a reliever. If everything goes according to plan, Feliz may be eased into a starting role when the Rangers deem necessary because they don't want him logging an absurd number of innings in 2010.

Regardless of what role he plays, the 21-year-old has one of the best young arms in all of baseball. More than a handful of Major League pitchers have fastballs that can reach triple digits, but what sets Feliz apart from the rest is the late, heavy movement on his 100-plus mph heater.

Wilmer Font: No player in the Rangers' system showed more improvement in 2009 than Font. The righty came in at 28th on last season's top 50 prospects list after he missed nearly the entire season with a shoulder injury. When Font returned, he flashed his upper-90s gas [topping out at 100 mph], but there was very little control or command–nary a hint of pitchability.

Rangers pitching coordinator Danny Clark and Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman wanted to get their point across to Font this year. They wanted to show Font that sometimes it's better to sacrifice some power for command. And that's exactly what they were able to do.

Although the club aggressively bumped Font up to Single-A Hickory out of Spring Training in '09, he had success practically from start to finish. The prospect finished the year with a 3.49 ERA in 108.1 innings. He was tough to hit [93 hits /.231 BAA], kept the ball in the ballpark [four homers allowed] and struck out almost a batter per inning [105].

But, most importantly, Font improved as the season progressed, particularly when it came to getting ahead of hitters and keeping his walks down. After issuing 31 walks in 44.1 innings before the Sally League All-Star break, Font issued just 28 free passes in 64 second-half innings, leading to a 2.95 ERA.

Font still has the ability to touch the upper-90s, but he didn't do it very often this past season. Font mostly worked in the 92-95 mph range, but he was able to repeat his delivery, throw a lot of strikes and work down in the strike zone at that velocity. At 6-foot-4, 210-plus pounds, Font has a great body and an electric fastball that makes him difficult to hit.

Aside from command, which made gigantic strides in 2009, Font's biggest issue has always been his secondary stuff. The 19-year-old flashed a rapidly improving changeup in '09, particularly in the second half of the season. He was not only able to throw his change for strikes, but it also looked like a legit swing-and-miss offering at times. Font's raw curveball showed signs of life last season, but it is still an inconsistent pitch.

In the end, Font has the same high ceiling he's always had. He clearly came a long way in 2009, going from the raw and injured pitcher that had struggled against Arizona League hitters to one of the most dominant arms in the Sally League. Still, Font has a long way to go, and the California League should be a good challenge for him in 2010.

Gutierrez should reach the Majors next season.
Daniel Gutierrez: The Rangers acquired Gutierrez from the Royals late in the 2009 season in exchange for outfielder Tim Smith and catcher Manny Pina. The rare prospect-for-prospect deal was brought along because of Gutierrez's off-field issues over the last few seasons, including an alleged rocky relationship with the Royals organization. Kansas City appeared to be cleaning house, as they also traded top pitching prospect Daniel Cortes in '09 after multiple off-field transgressions.

On the field, there are no doubts about Gutierrez's outstanding talent. The Los Angeles native features a power fastball, curveball combination that has both made him tough to hit and allowed him to rack up strikeouts over the last couple of seasons. Gutierrez logged just 27.1 innings with High-A Wilmington last season, but he was extremely successful, posting a 1.65 ERA.

After the Rangers traded for the pitcher, they sent him to Double-A Frisco to make a late-season start. The righty was successful, yielding two runs on three hits over five innings pitched. He then got a short rest before reporting to Fall Instructional League and–eventually–the Arizona Fall League.

During his time in the Fall League, Gutierrez began to turn heads not only within the Rangers' camp, but also throughout baseball. Despite some late struggles, the 22-year-old finished with a 4.08 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 17.2 innings against the elite competition. Overall, they weren't bad results for a guy with just five innings of experience above A-ball.

Gutierrez generally works in the 91-93 mph range [topping out in the mid-90s] as a starting pitcher, but he took it up a notch during his two- and three-inning Fall League outings. There, Gutierrez reached 97 mph at times and often sat between 93-95 mph. Even at the heightened velocity, he displayed excellent command of his powerful fastball on both sides of the plate.

The Riverside Community College product also has a dominant curveball that ranges in the mid-to-upper-70s. Gutierrez appears to have two curveballs–one harder and sharper, which is used as more of a put away pitch, and one slower 69-71 mph bender used as a change-of-pace offering.

With his fastball and curveball alone, Gutierrez figures to make a significant impact in the Major Leagues at some point. But the development of his changeup will be what decides whether he pitches out of the bullpen or as a starter. While Gutierrez has shown feel for a changeup at times, he must work on developing it and throwing it more often next season.

Main appears to be back a full strength.
Michael Main: The 24th overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft gained a lot of momentum and hype as an elite prospect with his outstanding finish in 2008, performing well at Single-A Clinton [2.58 ERA in 45.1 innings] and then dominating at Fall Instructional League. Main appeared to be primed for a breakout campaign in 2009, but that breakout never happened–for a couple of reasons.

The Florida native got out to a dreadful start with High-A Bakersfield, posting a 7.33 earned-run average in his first 12 starts of the season. Main was not only being hit hard [70 hits in 54 innings], but he was also walking hitters [36] and not striking out as many as usual [45]. Main's struggles came because his fastball velocity dipped into the upper-80s, his curveball lost its bite, and he was working up in the zone far too often.

Finally, after taking a drug test in early June, doctors discovered that Main had a mysterious sickness [later diagnosed as an unidentified viral infection of his liver] that was sapping his energy. Doctors said he had the infection since January, and it gradually began to wear on him during the season.

The Rangers chose to send Main home and let him rest for over two months before bringing him back on a rehab stint in the Arizona League. After two successful appearances, Main re-joined Bakersfield for the stretch drive and playoffs, where he worked out of the bullpen.

Main's velocity improved late in the season, and it was back to normal when he participated in the Advanced Instructional League. The 21-year-old was back to throwing a low-to-mid-90s fastball that explodes out of his hand at a good angle. His curveball began to get some bite back, although it's still an inconsistent pitch, as he sometimes fails to get on top of it.

The 6-foot-1, 170-pound hurler is a fierce competitor, an intelligent pitcher, and an elite athlete. Although his struggles in 2009 were a bit alarming, even considering the illness, he is the type of pitcher who can learn from his mistakes and turn it into a positive. As pitching coordinator Danny Clark has said, the California League taught Main the importance of consistently attacking the bottom portion of the strike zone.

If Main is healthy in 2010, which he should be, he probably won't spend much time in Bakersfield at all. The right-hander should be with Double-A Frisco before the All-Star break, and he will finally have an opportunity to fly through the system.

Scheppers has 'ace' stuff.
Tanner Scheppers: Once the right-hander finally signed with the Rangers in mid-September, it didn't take long for him to create a massive buzz around the prospect world. Scheppers reported to Fall Instructional League after signing, and he actually missed some time early on when he pulled a hamstring while running. But Scheppers got back on the mound within a couple of weeks, and his electric stuff was immediately put on display.

During one instructs outing, Scheppers' fastball sat between 93-94 mph with late movement in his two-inning stint. He flashed a 79-80 mph plus curveball, and he even threw one 83 mph to record a swinging strikeout. As it turns out, that was actually below-average stuff for Scheppers.

In the Arizona Fall League, Scheppers consistently worked between 95-98 mph, touching 99 a handful of times. His hard curveball has a two-plane break, and it's not just a plus pitch–it may be the best breaking ball in the entire system. The California native also mixes in the occasional slider and changeup. While his sharp 82-85 mph slider isn't used very often, he can get strikeouts with it when he wants.

While command isn't a major negative for Scheppers, he could stand to improve it a bit across the board. Scheppers has solid command of his entire repertoire–particularly the fastball and curveball–but he did show a tendency to elevate his fastball at times in the Fall League. Of course, with his velocity, he can get away with it more than most pitchers can.

The biggest questions regarding the 6-foot-4, 170-pound hurler are about his health and whether he'll start or relieve. Scheppers has a history of shoulder troubles that kept him out of Fresno State's national championship run in 2008, and the injuries caused teams to shy away from him in the last two drafts. However, the Rangers believe he is now healthy, and he had no arm problems during instructs or the Arizona Fall League.

In a recent online chat, Rangers General Manager Jon Daniels said that, when the 2010 season begins, Scheppers will likely be pitching at Double-A Frisco. It's safe to assume that the 22-year-old will open the season in the starting rotation, but if he reaches the Majors in 2010–which appears likely–it could be at the back-end of the bullpen, a la Neftali Feliz this past summer.

Scheppers has the stuff to make a Feliz-like impact on the Rangers next season. He has the ability to be a dominant closer for years to come. But with a power repertoire that includes three solid pitches [plus a changeup that should become average with time], Scheppers also has the stuff to become a frontline starter if he can stay healthy and handle the workload. Only time will tell what will happen, but there's no doubting that Scheppers has one of the highest ceilings in all of minor league baseball.

Closest to Majors

Moscoso could start, but he's likely a reliever.
Guillermo Moscoso: The former Tigers prospect is more than close to the Majors–he actually spent over a month of service time there in 2009. And although Moscoso has been a starter throughout his minor league career, the Rangers see him as a relief pitcher at the big league level.

The 26-year-old has dominated throughout his minor league career [2.90 ERA in 373 career innings] with the help of an outstanding fastball. Moscoso's 91-93 mph fastball [which tops out at 94] may not have the best velocity in the system, but it has plenty of late life. In fact, Moscoso's fastball may have more natural movement than any right-hander in the Rangers' system.

Moscoso got off to a slow start in 2009, but he began to dominate after a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City. With the RedHawks, Moscoso posted a 2.31 ERA and surrendered just 56 hits–and walking only 15–in 70 innings of work. The prospect also pitched well in 10 big league relief appearances, putting up a 3.21 ERA over 14 innings.

If the Rangers wanted to try Moscoso as a starting pitcher in the Majors, he would have an opportunity to succeed. At the time he was traded for Gerald Laird last offseason, Moscoso was regarded as mostly a one-pitch guy with a history of arm problems. But he continued to develop his upper-70s curveball in 2009, turning it into an effective pitch–even against big league hitters. Moscoso also scrapped his splitter for a straight changeup, and it proved to be a usable pitch in a starting role.

Because of the amount of high-ceiling talent around him, the Venezuela native may be one of the most underappreciated prospects in the system. Moscoso's stuff took a significant step forward in 2009, and he should contribute to the big league team, whether it be in the bullpen or at the back end of the starting rotation.

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