Name: Robbie Erlin
Notable 2011 Stats: 2.14 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 7 HRA, 5 BB, 62 K, and 35% GB% in 54 2/3 IP with Myrtle Beach (High-A);
4.32 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 9 HRA, 7 BB, 61 K, and 40% GB% in 66 2/3 IP with Frisco (AA);
1.38 ERA, 2.28 FIP, 2 HRA, 4 BB, 31 K, and 37% GB% in 26 IP with San Antonio (AA);
2.99 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 18 HRA, 16 BB, 154 K, and 37% GB% in 147 1/3 IP total
Why He’s This High: You could make a good argument that Erlin has the best command in the minor leagues; at the least, only a couple of pitchers (Tom Milone and teammate Joe Wieland come to mind) that are on his level. Erlin, however, has better stuff than Wieland or Milone, showing three pitches that all could end up above average. He works at 89-93 mph with his fastball and spots it wherever he wants, and both his curveball and changeup flash plus at times. He throws all three pitches from a very simple, compact delivery that provides deception via a hip turn and quick arm action.
In a lot of ways, Erlin’s a Cliff Lee sort of pitcher–he relentlessly pounds the strike zone, but he’s got enough deception and movement to rack up plenty of swinging strikes in the zone, and his command is so good that he gets an above-average number of called strikes three. It’s quite ambitious to expect him to become Lee, but he could become a Lee knockoff, which is good enough to be a very good #2 starter.
Erlin’s already completely mastered Double-A at age 20, and he could be ready for the majors by mid-2012. He could make a similar impact to the one Cory Luebke made for the Padres this past season.
Why He’s This Low: If we’re going to compare Erlin to Lee, we should note that one of the skills that Lee dramatically improved when he became an ace was his groundball rate–a number that’s always been low for Erlin. When Lee broke out in 2008, his groundball rate went from an Erlin-esque 35.3% to a solid 45.9%–the first time in his career he had a groundball rate over 37%. It’s an endorsement of his command that Erlin allowed fewer walks than homers in 2011, but it also is an indictment of his ability to keep the ball in the park. Of course, that isn’t as much of an issue in San Diego, which boasts the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball, but these rankings aren’t dependent on future home park.
Erlin’s not a big pitcher, and his lack of plane to the plate is a big reason for his flyball rate. It also means that he comes with the standard handwringing about injury likelihood, although his mechanics are smooth and he gets through innings efficiently. Still, he has yet to cross the 150-IP mark in a season.
None of his three offerings have consistent enough velocity/movement on them for scouts to feel comfortable hanging a “plus” tag on them; he needs to further refine his offspeed pitches if he’s going to miss lots of bats in the majors.
Conclusions: Erlin has a number of minor issues that knock his ceiling below “ace,” but at the same time, he’s so polished and has enough above-average attributes that it’s tough to imagine him being worse than a #3 starter. In a lot of ways, he’s the pitching version of yesterday’s prospect, Devin Mesoraco: as likely as a prospect can be to be a solid MLB contributor, but highly unlikely to be in the top 15-20 pitchers in the game. It’s open for debate whether that merits this spot on the list, but that’s not what really matters; what matters is that Erlin should be of tremendous value to the Padres, especially given his fit for their home park.
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