If the Blue Jays continue their quiet offseason and fail to sign starter Ubaldo Jimenez or Masahiro Tanaka or trade for Jeff Samardzjia, or perhaps only manage to bring in one veteran pitcher, the story of their spring will be the battle for the final rotation spots. And while much of that talk will likely center around near major league ready prospects Marcus Stroman, Sean Nolin, and Drew Hutchinson, there’s one relatively youthful starter who should not be overlooked: Kyle Drabek.
Yes, Kyle Drabek, the failed prospect who was twiced named as one of the top 30 prospects in the game by Baseball America and headlined the trade that sent Roy Halladay to the Phillies could be poised for a breakout season in 2014.
This would be sharp turn for the twenty six year old right hander, as any future with Drabek as top-flight starter seemed to have come to a close when he underwent his second Tommy John surgery in June of 2012. The surgery itself was not a death sentence, but Drabek had been a bust long before the operation. After spending a couple seasons as a top prospect in the minors and getting a cup of coffee in 2010, the young starter made the major league rotation out of spring training in 2011, where he proceeded to get absolutely hammered. In parts of three seasons from 2010 to 2012, Drabek walked almost exactly as many batters as he struck out, posting a 5.34 ERA and a WHIP of 1.671. With a 7.44 ERA in 15 Triple-A starts in 2011, his minor league numbers were even lore discouraging
Drabek returned from Tommy John surgery last summer, however, and looked almost like a new pitcher – or rather elite pitcher GM Alex Anthopoulos thought he were getting when he traded away future Hall of Famer. His stats over 14 minor league starts were as good as they’ve ever been, as he pitched to a 3.14 ERA and posted a 1.3 BB/9 – the lowest rate he has posted at any level over the course of his professional career. For a pitcher who’s always struggled with command, this is a great sign. And while he struggled with control in a brief major league stint at the end of the year, at three games, the sample size was too small to give any weight. The more important thing to take from his brief callup was that his velocity was uninhibited by surgery; he averaged 93 MPH on his fastball, just a tenth of a mile off from his career average.
Drabek’s command has always been the primary obstacle between him and success. He still has everything that made him into an elite talent when he was just 22 year old – the low to mid-90’s fastball, the hard biting curve. Sure, he may never live up to prior expectations and is certainly unlikely to ever live up the precedent set by his father, 1990 AL Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek, but if he can just translate last year’s minor league command into the majors, he could be one of the best fifth starters in baseball.