The Pittsburgh Pirates' top prospect, right-hander Gerrit Cole, made his professional debut on Friday in Mesa, his first appearance (other than instructional league) since the Pirates took him with the first overall pick in this year's Rule 4 draft. Cole, who was UCLA's Friday night starter all spring but was overshadowed by teammate Trevor Bauer in performance, brought his best fastball and flashed the good changeup that will be his out pitch going forward.
Cole hit 100 mph twice in his outing and sat mostly at 95-98, throwing four-seamers but not the two-seamer that he underused in college as well, and showed more life on the four-seamer than I saw in either start from him this spring. His slider was hard at 89-90 and didn't have consistent tilt, but the changeup at 87-88 was plus, his weapon of choice when ahead of left-handed hitters -- although it should be effective against right-handers as well. Cole's day ended when Tim Beckham, who had a solid at-bat in the first inning, jumped on a first-pitch fastball in the third for a double.
One negative on Cole is that he was cutting himself off slightly, landing just to the third-base side of the mound instead of directly on line towards home plate as he did this spring. This makes him throw a little bit across his body, which isn't great for command to the glove side and in some cases can lead to shoulder trouble. He's not far enough across his body to sound the alarm bell, but I can't see any good reason for him to go from being on-line to this new landing spot. I projected Cole as a No. 1 starter based on the plus fastball/changeup combo and the chance for the slider to become plus as well, and for his first professional outing Cole didn't show anything to change that ceiling.
• Colorado Rockies centerfielder Tim Wheeler broke out this year with an unexpected power surge, hitting 33 homers and slugging .535 in AA a year after he hit 12 and slugged .384 in the hitter-friendly Cal League. I'd heard stories of a major change in his swing mechanics, but he's actually very similar to where he was in college two and a half years ago.
He doesn't quite bar his lead arm as much, and when he throws his hips forward he keeps his front leg more stable, without opening up his front side. They're actually pretty small changes and I'm not certain they fully explain the power explosion. He remains a cipher against left-handed pitching -- he doesn't seem to see the ball at all out of a southpaw's hands and swings like he's flat-out guessing -- but given his improvements on defense and ability to hit right-handed pitching, he's a much more valuable asset than he was eight months ago.
• Seattle Mariners left-hander Danny Hultzen, the second overall pick in this year's Rule 4 draft, had a little more velocity in his second outing in the AFL than he did in his first. On Thursday he was 92-94 in his first inning, then settled in at 90-93 after that, with a solid-average changeup that he used heavily on the outer half to get right-handed batters out, but was struggling to stay on top of the ball more than he usually does. I was a little surprised that he wasn't throwing more sliders, since that's the pitch that needs the most work and teams often ask prospects in the AFL to focus on an area of relative weakness.
• Chicago Cubs right-hander Trey McNutt showed great velocity but well-below-average command and control in that same game, sitting 94-96 with a changeup that flashed plus but was wildly inconsistent. McNutt is very athletic with a slider that you could easily project to above-average or better, but he was unable to repeat his delivery on Thursday and was consistently behind hitters -- the plus fastball is great, but hitters won't chase it unless it's in the same ZIP code as the strike zone.
• Cole is just the third pitcher to reach triple digits out in the AFL so far. Two Cub right-handers have done it as well -- Chris Carpenter in the first week and Andrew Cashner twice this week. Cashner missed most of 2011 with a sore shoulder, but I think it's fair to say he's healthy again, sitting 96-100 with an above-average changeup.
Cashner has the three weapons to start, but not the durability, and between the shoulder issue and him throwing just 15 innings during the entire regular season, the Cubs can't jump him into a starter's role and ask him to handle 150-plus innings in 2012. He could work as a reliever next year, build up arm strength, and if the shoulder checks out perhaps return to the rotation at some point in 2013.
• One other first-round arm out here besides Cole and Hultzen is Atlanta left-hander Sean Gilmartin, who was a reach at the back of the first round because of his size and lack of upside. Gilmartin was 88-91 with an improved slider but worse change-up than I saw from him as an amateur, as well as a slow upper-60s curveball that is more of a show-me pitch. If you really like his command and control, and believe that his athleticism will allow him to overcome his slight build, you could see a fourth starter here in the big leagues.
• Beckham was really scuffling his first week out here, not in results (AFL statistics are often misleading, especially in a tiny sample) but in the quality of his at-bats, but he hung in there against Cole in the first at-bat and made a quick adjustment for his second at-bat en route to a four-hit/ten-total-bases day, a small positive after a poor showing in his first six games.
Beckham has improved at shortstop but has lost his speed and is now a fringe-average runner at best. Beckham is very noisy at the plate, with an inconsistent stride that has him meeting the ball at a different point with every swing and busy hands that can't help him get a consistent swing path, but he does still have good hand acceleration and strong forearms to drive the ball out to left-center. He is only 21, making him one of the younger position players out here, and has come a long way in the last 18 months; there's just more work to do to get him to the point where he's major-league ready at the plate.