Meet The Four Elite Pitchers Rising In Our 2019 Top 100
The last two major league rookie classes have brimmed with talented young hitters who should factor in the MVP conversation for years to come.
From Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto, Shohei Ohtani and Gleyber Torres in 2018 to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Eloy Jimenez and Nick Senzel this year, most of the recent top prospects are, well, no longer prospects.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco assumes the top spot on our midseason Top 100 Prospects ranking. Like Guerrero in 2017, Franco has thoroughly dominated the low Class A Midwest League after entering the year as its youngest player.
Behind Franco, the pitchers have begun to even the scales with position players. Many members of the next wave of phenoms can be found on the mound, led by a fearsome foursome of power arms, two lefthanded and two righthanded.
Representing the southpaws are the Padres’ MacKenzie Gore (No. 3 prospect) and the Rays’ Brendan McKay (No. 16). From the right side are the Tigers’ Casey Mize (No. 7) and the Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson (No. 15).
Mize and McKay were drafted out of high-profile colleges, Pearson was found at a small junior college in Florida and Gore was plucked from a North Carolina high school. All four have wowed evaluators with their combinations of stuff and poise and have buzzsawed their way through the competition.
None of the four is likely to overtake Franco for the top prospect title, but they should all hover in the top 20 until they graduate and begin to work toward reaching their lofty ceilings.
Projected Scouting Grades
Gore is the youngest of the bunch and narrowly has the highest ceiling. Drafted third overall in 2017, his first full test in pro ball was filled with stutter-stops spurred by blisters that formed on his pitching hand. Though relatively mild as far as pitcher injuries are concerned, the blisters limited Gore to just 60.2 innings at low Class A Fort Wayne in 2018.
Even so, the Padres jumped Gore to the hitters’ paradise of the California League in 2019. He opened the season as the second-youngest pitcher on the circuit—trailing only Lake Elsinore teammate Luis Patiño—and has been electric all year.
Through his first 11 starts, the 20-year-old Gore sported a 5-1, 1.21 mark with 83 strikeouts through 59.2 innings. Both his ERA and 0.69 WHIP led the league.
Now comes the scary part. Evaluators who have seen Gore this year believe he has plenty of room to improve.
"He’s got some things going for him,” one scout said. "His fastball’s sneaky—his fastball will play. I’d like to see his slider turn into a cutter to really get in on righties’ hands and really front-door that cutter to a lefty or backdoor it to a righty. Use it as a slider, but a thin slider, make it a cutter, make it firm.
"And then I want his curveball to turn into what his slider is now, the same basic shape but throw it a little harder. His curveball was rolling through the zone at 75 (mph) and it wasn’t good enough; big league hitters are going to (crush) that.”
Gore’s fastball, which can sit in the mid-90s, has touched as high as 98 mph and is thrown from a delivery featuring elite extension. His curveball—a deep 11-to-5 breaker—and changeup each flash plus. His slider lags behind but is at least serviceable for the change of pace it offers in contrast to his curveball.
Though the first scout’s review sounded critical, he came away impressed. A second scout felt the same, and believes that Gore’s ceiling is near the top of a rotation.
"He was the best pitcher after the draft,” the second scout said, "and he keeps getting better. He has everything you look for in a frontline starting pitching prospect.”
Projected Scouting Grades
Like Gore, Pearson’s breakout was supposed to happen in 2018 but was dramatically truncated by injuries. After a ferocious spring training that jumped him onto the national radar, Pearson’s season ended shortly after it started when he suffered a right elbow fracture on a comebacker just 1.2 innings into his first start.
Pearson, a 2017 first-rounder, didn’t resurface until instructional league and then again in the Arizona Fall League. He made waves at the AFL’s prospect showcase by touching 104 mph but was otherwise hit hard in the desert.
In his second chance at a first full season, Pearson has turned two leagues upside-down with his combination of stuff and command. In his time in the Florida State and Eastern leagues, the massive 22-year-old was 3-1, 1.89 and had whiffed 66 while issuing just eight walks.
Complicating Pearson’s season, however, is an innings limit that the Blue Jays are handling creatively. Instead of shutting him down early, the organization has alternated his starts between five- and two-inning appearances. By doing so, Pearson should stay on the active roster all season.
No matter the length of the outing, Pearson’s M.O. has been consistent: Overpower the opponent with a repertoire of filthy, nasty and unhittable pitches. Even on off nights, his stuff inspires scouts to put big numbers on his future potential.
“Even without his best stuff he punched out like five guys in five innings and only walked two,” one scout said. “I definitely didn’t get the best look at him, but I still think he could be a No. 2 starter.
“His fastball is elite, his slider is above-average and his changeup is a good pitch too . . . The ingredients are there for some potential to be a front-of-the-rotation guy.”
A second scout, who saw Pearson both in instructional league and again this season with Double-A New Hampshire, came into the year with questions about whether Pearson would be able to turn his prodigious stuff into quality strikes.
“That’s why I put a 60 (on the 20-80 scouting scale) on him instructs,” the scout said. “It was like, ‘Yeah, his stuff is huge, but will he throw strikes?’ . . . It’s still average command, but he’s throwing good strikes.”
With quality strikes and an arsenal of plus pitches, Pearson has easily made his case as the most talented pitcher yet to make his big league debut.
“He’s probably the best pitcher in the minor leagues right now,” the scout said. “I mean, who’s better than him in the minor leagues right now? Pure stuff-wise, I have a hard time believing that anyone is better than Nate Pearson.”
California League Top 20 Prospects For 2019
Prospects ranked include prominent names from the Padres, Giants and Mariners organizations.
Projected Scouting Grades
The No. 1 overall pick out of Auburn in 2018, Mize opened his first full year in the Florida State League, where he destroyed everything in his path. Promoted to the Eastern League, he would, in theory, face a tougher test.
Not every theory pans out.
Mize opened his tenure with Double-A Erie by throwing a no-hitter against Altoona on just 98 pitches. In nine starts with the SeaWolves, Mize has gone 6-0, 1.21 with 50 strikeouts against 11 walks. That stretch also included a 20-inning scoreless streak that spanned three starts from May 20 through May 31.
Unfortunately, Mize left his start on June 13 after just 2.1 innings and was placed on the injured list with right shoulder soreness. Because of his high-stress delivery and injury history in college, there was always concern that he might have trouble staying healthy.
To achieve all his success before the injury, Mize employed one of the most interesting arsenals in the game. He throws four- and two-seam fastballs, a cutter, a split-fingered fastball and a slurvy slider. The splitter serves as his changeup, and scouts have graded the pitch as a 70 since his days in the Southeastern Conference.
“You don’t see pitch packages like that, much less a guy who can command them all,” said Trenton manager Patrick Osborn, whose team opposed Mize on June 7. “He can throw them all whenever he wants, and they probably all grade out as plus pitches . . . He’s kind of unique that way with his arsenal. I think what makes him even better is he’s able to command the ball throwing those different pitches.”
That sentiment was familiar among those who have seen Mize this year. His arsenal is rare in that each pitch is average or better, and he has the confidence to throw any pitch in any count to any spot in the strike zone.
His combination of precision and performance keeps hitters from keying in on a particular pitch or location, leaving them at Mize’s mercy.
His most recent injury complicates things, but Mize still has a bright future and, once he’s healthy, should blaze a quick path to Detroit.
Projected Scouting Grades
McKay is different from Gore, Pearson and Mize in a few key ways. First, he was farther along the developmental ladder, having reached Triple-A in his third pro season. He also was the only member of the group who doesn’t have a knockout arsenal. Though to be fair, McKay is the only one who has had to develop as both a hitter and a pitcher.
A two-way standout at Louisville when he was drafted fourth overall in 2017, McKay has continued to get reps at the plate, though he has migrated from first baseman to DH this season.
That’s because it is McKay’s pitching that has the potential to make him a star once he reaches Tampa Bay.
If it weren’t for his continued offensive development, some evaluators believe McKay might already be pitching at Tropicana Field on a full-time basis.
“He’s not (Shohei) Ohtani. He has a feel to hit, but there is major league impact there on the mound,” one scout said. “He can impact a major league roster right now on the bump.”
And while McKay won’t light up a radar gun like Mize, Gore and Pearson, his command is the best of the bunch. He uses a four-pitch mix aggressively and gets swings and misses both in and out of the zone.
In fact, as of June 12, McKay’s swinging-strike rate of 16.2 percent was better than both Gore and Mize and trailed Pearson only slightly. So while he might not earn 70s or 80s for any of his pitches, he uses what he has to send hitters back to the dugout just the same.
On June 15, he aced the biggest test of his young career when he faced rehabbing Yankees all-stars Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in front of a sellout crowd of 12,000. He held the pair hitless in four at-bats and recorded three strikeouts, including a sequence when he got both to stare at curveballs for called third strikes.
“I have him with a five-pitch arsenal, all at least average,” one scout said. “He’s a plus athlete, he repeats his delivery and he has multiple good pickoff moves. His slider is an above-average pitch. He has weapons for both handed hitters, and he commands and controls them all. He just does everything well.”
With Acuña, Soto and Ohtani all established as stars and Guerrero, Tatis and Jimenez about to do the same, the balance of young star power in the big leagues has tilted toward the batter’s box. If Gore, Pearson, Mize and McKay live up to their potential, the pendulum might swing the other way.