As I promised in my list of six under-appreciated hitters, here are six less-heralded pitchers who had excellent first halves and may be primed for top level prospect status. One is probably already there.
Adys Portillo, RHP, SDP (A)
Portillo was signed out of Venezuela by the Padres more than four years ago and is now in his third season of minor league ball, but he’s still only 20 and his gifts have never been doubted. Portillo’s fastball has been called the best in the system by some scouts–the term “plus-plus” has been bandied about to describe his mid-nineties gas–and his secondary pitches are both potential plus offerings as well. Portillo has parlayed his excellent raw stuff into success on the field for the first time in 2012, compiling a 1.65 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 50.1 innings. 24 walks show that control is still a problem for the young Padre, but Portillo’s electric arsenal and youth make his breakout one to monitor.
Jose Fernandez, RHP, MIA (A/A+)
Okay, so I may have broken my rule about relative unknowns with Fernandez, but he has come from out of nowhere to have one of the best first halves in the minor leagues. The big right-hander blew through Low A like a cyclone, posting a 1.59 ERA, striking out 99, and walking only 18 in 79 innings and earning a promotion to the Florida State League at the tender age of 19. Fernandez’s best pitch is an upper 90s fastball with natural tail, but he also wields a plus curveball and a capable changeup. The young Cuban is also reported to have tremendous mound presence and maturity for such a young pitcher. Baseball America has ranked him 8th in their midseason top 100 prospect list (after beginning the season unranked), so Fernandez is no longer a secret; he has become one of Miami’s top prospects.
Burch Smith, RHP, SDP (A+)
Drafted in the 14th round out of the University of Oklahoma in 2011, Smith has performed well in the hitter-friendly Cal League, with a 3.43 ERA, 100 Ks, and only 78 hits allowed in 89 innings. Smith also has had impeccable command, issuing only 14 walks thus far. He throws a low 90s fastball which tops out around 95 and also possesses a strong changeup. The 22 year old right-hander has given up some home runs–11 so far–but that may partially be a result of the league in which he plays. The Padres, already rich in minor league talents, may have found another gem in Smith.
Kyle Hendricks, RHP, TEX (A+)
Hendricks has had even more impressive command than Smith this season, throwing more innings (113.2) and walking fewer batters (11) for a truly sensational BB/9 of 0.87. Add in his 93 strikeouts and 2.61 ERA and Hendricks has had an excellent season for Myrtle Beach and was named a mid-season All-Star. Selected in the 8th round in 2011 out of Dartmouth, Hendricks is still only 22 and pitching his way into the Rangers’ future plans. The Ivy Leaguer isn’t overpowering, but he knows how to get hitters out and doesn’t beat himself. Though other Rangers prospects (read: Martin Perez) are more highly touted, it may be Hendricks who has a better career.
Chris Heston, RHP, SFG (AA)
This is already Heston’s fourth year in the minor leagues and he has gotten better at every stop, from a 4.11 ERA in the Rookie League in 2009 to 3.16 at High A last year, when he was named the High A San Jose Giants’ Pitcher of the Year. This year has been Heston’s best yet; he has thrown 100 innings and compiled a 2.24 ERA with 91 strikeouts and only 21 walks after what is traditionally considered the most difficult jump to make (A+ to AA). Heston, 24, is another pitcher whose results speak louder than his stuff–a sinkerballer, he has allowed just two home runs this season and works in the low 90s. If he keeps pitching like he has so far, Heston may find his name above a locker in San Francisco sometime in 2012.
Tyler Cloyd, RHP, PHI (AAA)
Cloyd, 25, was drafted in 2008 in the 18th round and has been slowly working his way up the ladder since. Unlike the other pitchers on this list, Cloyd does not strike people out–only 60 in 89.2 innings–but he does have excellent control, with only 20 walks. Nothing about Cloyd’s arsenal–a high 80s-low 90s fastball, good changeup, and curve–screams future starter, yet his results this year are difficult to overlook: a 2.01 ERA and only 65 hits allowed. The Phillies, who may soon be in the market for starters with Cole Hamels potentially on the trading block, could do worse than giving Cloyd his shot at the big time.