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Saturday, June 4, 2011
2011 picks likely to arrive early

By Conor Dowley

With the 2011 first-year player draft on Monday evening, fans across the country are licking their chops thinking of the players their team might be able to get. What kind of discourages a lot of people from the prospect world, however, is how long it takes a lot of these guys to reach the majors, assuming they ever do. Fans get excited when a guy can fly through the minors and help the big-league team sooner rather than later.

From recent drafts, guys like Mike Leake and Chris Sale come to mind. Leake debuted in the Cincinnati Reds’ rotation last season without ever having pitched in the minors after being drafted in 2009 and signing late. He had a pretty decent season helping a team that wound up in the playoffs. Sale threw just 10 1/3 innings in the Chicago White Sox’s farm system after being a 2010 first-round pick before getting called up for his big-league debut in the bullpen. He's has been a big part of their late-inning game since.

So who could be the one who zips right to the big leagues from this draft? I’m not sure there are any guys in this class who will do it in less than a year, but there are a few players who could easily make short work of the minors and get to the majors well ahead of the curve.

Any conversation about players who move fast has to start with Gerrit Cole. Regarded by many as the top pitcher in the draft, and one of the candidates for the No. 1 overall pick, Cole could step onto a major league mound tomorrow and offer two plus pitches (his fastball and changeup), and an above-average one that could become a plus pitch in his slider. The changeup being as good as it is will be a huge factor in how quickly he advances. Cole is a power pitcher and having that type of changeup gives him a lot of wiggle room to work with.

The one thing that might hold Cole back is his command. He’s had some rough outings with UCLA lately, and it has largely been chalked up to his command drifting. If he can get that down and do it more consistently, he could become a scary pitcher to face at any level. When he comes up is going to depend largely on how his command comes along, but it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if he’s up around the All-Star break in 2012.

A consideration for Cole’s potentially speedy ascent through the minors is the Scott Boras factor. Boras will be “advising” Cole in his negotiations, which almost certainly means that he’s going to get a big pile of cash given what sort of pitcher he is and where he’s likely going to be taken. That sort of money could encourage his team to push him through even faster so they can try to get a better return on their investment. On the flip side, they could take it slower with Cole in order to protect him. It’s going to be intriguing to see how that situation works out.

Another potential top-five pick is Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen, and he’s also a guy who could move through the minors quickly. Unlike Cole, he’s not a terribly flashy pitcher, but he does have three solid pitches and the command and smarts on the mound to get a lot out of them. Hultzen’s changeup might be his best pitch, and much like Cole, it will give help him speed up his time in the minors and give him some room for error once he reaches the majors. Since he doesn’t have the same kind of stuff as Cole, it’s harder to project how fast he’ll move. But if Hultzen gets with a team that is willing to be aggressive with him and he finds early success, he too could be an All-Star break call-up.

One last hurler who could be a quick riser -- but who doesn’t get mentioned as much as Cole or Hultzen -- is right-hander Matt Barnes. Barnes is a University of Connecticut product, throws out a mid-90s fastball, and has an interesting variety of secondary pitches. None of them really stand out as a plus pitch, but almost all of them are at least useful, and the changeup is at least an average pitch. That sort of arsenal reminds one of James Shields, but with a bit more oompf. Like Cole, he needs to solidify his command, but his issues seem to stem from needing to get his mechanics a bit more consistent, especially on the secondary stuff. If he can do that, he could be up by the end of 2012, or early in 2013.

Of course, guessing when prospects might arrive in the majors is far from a perfect science. Any of these guys could get hurt, especially since they’re pitchers, or have an utterly horrible time adjusting to professional baseball. Someone else that I completely dismissed for this piece could shock everyone and rocket their way up to the majors. That’s part of what makes this game fun and interesting.

Conor Dowley writes about the Mariners for the SweetSpot Network at ProBall NW and about their minor-league system at Mariners Farm Review.