Reds ace Johnny Cueto, who finished 4th in the NL Cy Young balloting in 2012, spent three full seasons in the minor leagues. In not one of them did he post a lower ERA than the recently acquired David Holmberg did last year. Brought over from the Diamondbacks in the three team trade that sent Ryan Hanigan to the Rays, David Holmberg is a left handed pitching prospect who immediately grabs a spot among the top ten prospects in Cincinatti’s farm system.
In 26 Double-A starts last season, Holmberg posted a 2.75 ERA – a year after posting a 3.32 ERA in 27 starts between that level and High-A. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo ranked him as the eighth best prospect in the Reds farm system following the trade and as the 10th best left handed pitching prospect in all of baseball. Mayo described him as a future middle of the rotation starter thanks to solid command of his four potentially “average or better” offerings, topped off by an excellent fading change up. Baseball America for their part stated claimed the season that Holmberg had the best command in the entire Arizona system, describing him as “extremely poised,” “polished,” and “very sound mechanically.” They also unwaveringly agreed with Mayo’s mid-rotation starter projection.
Yet there’s a reason that the Diamondbacks were so willing to part with Holmberg, a prospect they had once given up a rather dominant Edwin Jackson for, and only get a weak hitting 32 year old catcher in exchange. In the same manner that Hanigan is likely better than his .198 batting average from least season would indicate (his .216 BABIP was well below the MLB average), Holmberg is probably worse than his 2.75 ERA.
As advanced and capable on the mound as Holmberg is, he is rather uninspiring overall. His changeup is his only above average pitch, with his fastball coming in at an uninspiring 88-91 MPH and his slider and curveball both adequate but not noteworthy. His peripherals – much better indicators of future big league success than ERA – were almost mediocre in 2013, with a 6.6 SO/9 and a 2.9 BB/9. Ideally, teams would like to see their top pitching prospects strikeout at least eight batters per nine in the minors. Granted, he has had a better strikeout rate and command in past years, but that was largely a result of Holmberg being too intelligent on the mound for young A-ball hitters. In 95 Double-A innings in 2012, he was hardly better, walking only 2.2 batters per nine, but failing to strikeout more than 6.3.
Still, that is more of a warning against his upside than a blighting of his overall future. The workings are indeed here for a number three or four starter – closer to number four in my opinion – but he almost definitely does not have the capacity to exceed that. Although I wouldn’t expect it, the worst case scenario is that he becomes a decent left handed reliever.
A future middle rotation starter or lefty specialist for a 32 year old catcher coming off a season in which he hit .198 with a .261 slugging percentage? Doesn’t seem fair, but for Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, this three team deal wasn’t about Holmberg or really anything more than shedding Heath Bell‘s considerable 2014 salary. The Reds were simply passive beneficiaries.