April 21st, 2022
While the evolution of the big league pitching staffs continues and how a closer is employed might continue to change, there is still something different about a short reliever with plus stuff coming in and shutting the door in key situations. These stoppers need to have a certain mentality and, more often than not, it’s combined with some kind of high-octane fastball-breaking ball combination.
Not all of the 30 pitching prospects listed below are currently saving games or “closing,” but they have been identified as having the combination of stuff and moxie to handle such a high-pressure role should the opportunity arise.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Hagen Danner, RHP (No. 17)
Drafted as a catcher in the second round back in 2017, Danner debuted as a relief pitcher last season and quickly made an impression with a fastball that sits mid-90s and a potentially above-average slider. The Jays saw enough at High-A Vancouver last year to add him to the 40-man as Rule 5 protection, and the 23-year-old right-hander opened this season at Double-A. There’s a chance more velocity could come as he gets more comfortable in the role — he touched 100 in instructs already — and that’s why he could be a late-inning piece for Toronto in time.
Orioles: Felix Bautista, RHP (No. 30)
Considering it took Bautista nine years from the time he signed to make it to the big leagues, why not project that he’ll end up closing games? He joined the Orioles as a Minor League free agent for the 2016 season and didn’t make it out of A ball until last year, when he went from High-A to Triple-A and saved 11 games. His fastball, which touches triple digits, and low-90s slider have already led to eight strikeouts in five big league innings this year.
Rays: Colby White, RHP (No. 25)
White appeared for all four Tampa Bay full-season affiliates in 2021, finishing with a 1.44 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 104 strikeouts over 62 1/3 innings. The right-hander leaned on his 95-98 mph fastball and above-average slider to get those results, and the arsenal had him on the cusp of the Majors to open 2022. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery in April before the season began, but if his stuff comes back as expected in 2023, White still has the best chance to close or at least work high-leverage innings for the Rays in the future.
Red Sox: Bryan Mata, RHP (No. 8)
Still working his way back from Tommy John surgery in April 2021, Mata has an electric 93-97 mph sinker, a four-seamer that reaches 100 mph and also an upper-80s slider and mid-80s changeup that both grade as plus pitches at times. Signed for $25,000 out of Venezuela in 2016, he hasn’t thrown consistent strikes as a starter and could pare down his repertoire and add velocity in shorter stints.
Yankees: Luis Gil, RHP (No. 10)
Though Gil didn’t allow a run in his first three big league starts last year, he’s better suited for the bullpen because he’s basically a two-pitch guy with little history of throwing strikes. Acquired from the Twins in a March 2018 trade for Jake Cave, he sits at 95-97 mph and hits 100 with good carry on his four-seam fastball and flashes a wipeout mid-80s slider with sharp horizontal break.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Guardians: Ethan Hankins, RHP (No. 25)
Recovering from Tommy John surgery last April, Hankins could concentrate on his 92-97 mph fastball and low-80s changeup, both of which feature plenty of run and sink, if he headed to the bullpen. The 2018 first-round pick from a Georgia high school has better feel for those offerings than his slider and curveball.
Royals: Dylan Coleman, RHP (No. 22)
The 6-foot-5 right-hander first cracked the Majors on Sept. 21 last year, and after impressing again this spring, he hasn’t been back in the Minors since. Coleman has averaged 97.3 mph on his fastball in the bigs, touching as high as 99.3 so far this season, and he’s getting a healthy amount of whiffs (and no hits so far in 2022) on his mid-80s slider. Coleman has pitched primarily in the sixth, seventh and eighth to start this season, but with his arsenal, it isn’t hard to see him challenge vets Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont for closing opportunities before the summer is up.
Tigers: Wilmer Flores, RHP (No. 15)
The 21-year-old hurler — and brother of the Giants infielder of the same name — broke out on the scene in 2021 after signing as an undrafted free agent a year earlier. He struck out 72 over 53 innings at Single-A, moved to the Arizona Fall League and opened 2022 at High-A, where he’s yet to allow a run while fanning 14 over six innings. All of that has been as a starter, but with a two-pitch repertoire (mid-90s fastball, high-spin curveball) and history of control issues, a spot in the bullpen seems his likeliest destination.
Twins: Jhoan Duran, RHP (No. 6)
He’s going to graduate off the Top 30 soon and we couldn’t resist another opportunity to mention his nasty “splinker,” the splitter-sinker hybrid that’s been averaging over 96 mph in the big leagues so far this year and has produced a 50 percent whiff rate. Meanwhile, his fastball has averaged over 100 mph and he has five of the 15 hardest pitches thrown in the Majors as of Thursday. There’s no established closer in town now, so…
White Sox: Jason Bilous, RHP (No. 17)
Part of Coastal Carolina’s 2016 College World Series championship team, Bilous has pitched his way to Double-A and onto Chicago’s 40-man roster since turning pro as a 13th-rounder in 2018. He’s making progress as a starter, but his 92-97 mph four-seam fastball and low-80s slider would play up out of the bullpen, and he doesn’t have a long track record of filling the strike zone.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
A’s: Garrett Acton, RHP (No. 30)
Despite saving 19 games at Illinois in 2019, then six more without allowing a run in the shortened 2020 season, Acton wasn’t selected in the five-round Draft that summer. He signed a free-agent deal with the A’s and pitched across two levels of A ball in 2021, using a 97-98 mph fastball and plus slider to strike out 14.6 per nine. He’s up in Double-A now and has already picked up a save while continuing to miss a ton of bats.
Angels: Luke Murphy, RHP (No. 29)
Murphy closed for Vanderbilt in 2021, saving nine games and striking out 13.3 per nine, then kept missing bats during his pro debut in High-A last year after the Angels took him in the fourth round. The right-hander has brought his lively upper-90s fastball and power slider with him to Double-A, and he even has a bit of a feel for a changeup he can mix in against left-handed hitters.
Astros: Shawn Dubin, RHP (No. 8)
Though Dubin averaged 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings as a piggyback starter in his first three pro season after the Astros took him in the 13th round out of NAIA Georgetown (Ky.), his slight 6-foot-1 build and effortful delivery are better suited for bullpen work. He has closer stuff with a 93-96 mph fastball that peaks at 99 and a mid-80s slider with two-plane break that devastates left-handers and right-handers.
Mariners: Bryce Miller, RHP (No. 23)
Miller, the Mariners’ fourth-round pick in 2021, is no stranger to relief work, having pitched out of Texas A&M’s bullpen in 2019 and the shortened 2020 season. He started in 2021, which allowed him to climb into the fourth round. He’s starting right now in High-A, but his fastball, which touches 99 mph, and mid-80s slider alone could tick up back in shorter stints, where his less-than-excellent command wouldn’t be an issue.
Rangers: Ricky Vanasco, RHP (No. 14)
Vanasco has one of the best arms in the Texas system but worked just 83 1/3 innings in his first five pro seasons after going in the 15th round of the 2017 Draft because of the pandemic shutdown and Tommy John surgery in September 2020. The Rangers are still trying to develop the Florida high school product as a starter, but a mid-90s fastball that touches 99 mph, a hammer curveball in the low-80s and inconsistent strikes could make him a high-leverage reliever.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Indigo Diaz, RHP (No. 15)
Diaz already has end-of-game experience, serving as Michigan State’s closer in 2019 before the Braves took him in Round 29 of that June’s Draft and he picked up five saves in 2021, pitching his way from High-A to Double-A while striking out 16.6 per nine. He’s imposing at 6-foot-5 on the mound and can crank his fastball up to 97 mph to go along with a good, hard mid-80s slider, though his command late last year and at the start of this one hasn’t been as good as it was early on in 2021.
Phillies: Francisco Morales, RHP (No. 10)
After signing for $720,000 in 2016, Morales had been developing as a starter with very mixed results, mostly in the strike-throwing department. The Phillies decided to move him to the bullpen this year as he returned to Double-A and it’s been so far, so good. The right-hander has been 95-99 mph with his fastball and 86-91 mph with his absolutely filthy slider in shorter stints, and he’s given up just one hit and struck out 10 in seven innings.
Marlins: Jake Eder, LHP (No. 7)
The 2020 fourth-rounder from Vanderbilt made a spectacular pro debut in Double-A last year, featuring a mid-90s four-seamer that reached 98 mph and a tight low-80s slider along with an improved changeup and control. Sidelined after having Tommy John surgery in September, he definitely looks like mid-rotation material but we’re including him here because the Marlins have so many quality young starters and someone will have to head to the bullpen.
Mets: Eric Orze, RHP (No. 17)
There are bound to be a lot of fireballers on this list. Orze, on the other hand, is a splitter specialist. The low-80s pitch drops off nicely and gets hitters from both sides flailing, leading to 67 strikeouts over 49 2/3 innings last season across three levels. A 93-95 mph fastball gives Orze another way to beat hitters. The 24-year-old, now back with Triple-A Syracuse, has already served time on New York’s taxi squad this spring and isn’t far from filing a more official relief spot in Queens.
Nationals: Jackson Rutledge, RHP (No. 4)
Washington hasn’t given up on the 6-foot-8 right-hander as a starter, and there remains a chance he could still see the Majors in that role. However, injuries are piling up. He was limited to 36 1/3 innings by shoulder and blister issues last year and hasn’t seen the Minors yet in 2022 after experiencing a biceps injury in the spring. The stuff is certainly Major League-worthy with a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider that was the talk of the Arizona Fall League at times last year. If Rutledge can’t settle into a rotation consistently this summer, the fast track as a reliever might be just around the corner.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Abner Uribe, RHP (No. 19)
Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said of Uribe this spring, “He’s close enough that if you get on the right track, it could affect us this year.” That’s not difficult to imagine for a 21-year-old right-hander who can already sit triple-digits in certain outings and show a plus slider that some Milwaukee officials think is actually his best pitch. On account of that stuff, Uribe jumped from Single-A to Double-A to begin 2022, highlighting how close to helping the Brewers he is already. It’ll all come down to control; the 6-foot-2 hurler has walked 50 batters over 65 career innings in the Minors.
Cardinals: Andre Pallante, RHP (No. 15)
Pallante’s stuff was starting to tick up toward the end of last season. He maintained those gains and moved directly into the St. Louis bullpen out of the gate this spring. The 6-foot right-hander comes way over the top with good extension in his delivery, putting his mid-90s fastball right on top of hitters. He possesses two breaking balls in his slider and curve but hasn’t thrown either more than 17 percent of the time in the Majors yet. The improved velo and uncomfortable at-bat play well in relief, where he could remain now that he’s found a home there.
Cubs: Brailyn Marquez, LHP (No. 10)
Marquez has the best arm in the Cubs system, delivering fastballs that can sit in the upper 90s and touch 102 mph and wipeout sliders in the mid-80s when he’s at his best. Signed for the largest bonus ($600,000) any left-hander got in the 2015 international class, the Dominican has yet to prove he has the durability or command to reach his ceiling of a frontline starter and could become a dynamic reliever.
Reds: Alexis Diaz, RHP
The Reds took Diaz in the 12th round back in the 2015 Draft out of the Puerto Rico high school ranks and it took him awhile to gain any traction, not getting out of A ball until last year, when he pitched full-time out of Double-A Chattanooga’s bullpen. He’s always missed bats (12.0 K/9) and his stuff, a mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider, seem to be working in the big leagues, with a 43.8 percent whiff rate with his breaking ball. And maybe closing is in his blood: His brother is Mets closer Edwin Diaz.
Pirates: Colin Selby, RHP
Perennial prospect Blake Cederlind is always an option here, but since he hasn’t pitched in a competitive game since he was in the big leagues in 2020, we’ll give someone else a shot. That someone is Selby, who was a starter at small Randolph-Macon College in Virginia when the Pirates took him in the 16th round of the 2018 Draft. He moved into the ‘pen last year and saved six games for playoff-bound Greensboro. Command is an issue, but he has a fastball approaching triple digits with a power slider that has helped him strike out more than 10 per nine since the move to the ‘pen.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Luis Frias, RHP (No. 18)
Sixty-six of Frias’ 69 Minor League appearances have been starts. All three of his Major League outings have been in relief. The latter seems like his likelier point forward in the bigs. The 23-year-old right-hander can touch 99 with his heater and shows a plus curveball on top of that. He has shown promising gains on a changeup and in his control, but the velo and two-pitch mix still might work best in shorter stints. Frias is back in the Triple-A Reno rotation now, but a move to an aging Arizona bullpen might not be far off.
Dodgers: Carlos Duran, RHP (No. 16)
Duran already stood 6-foot-7 and weighed 230 pounds when he signed out of the Dominican Republic for $300,000 in March 2018, and he can overpower hitters with a fastball that reaches 98 mph and one of best sliders in the Minors, a mid-80s monster with sweep and two-plane break. There’s effort in his delivery and his command is a work in progress, so most scouts think he’s destined for the bullpen.
Giants: Randy Rodriguez (No. 12)
Signed for just $50,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, Rodriguez claimed a spot on San Francisco’s 40-man roster with a spectacular 2021 season in Low-A, where he finished without allowing a run and posting a 50/3 K/BB ratio in his final 28 1/3 innings. The Giants are trying to see if they can stretch him out as a starter this year, but they know he can thrive in the bullpen with a 94-99 mph fastball with tremendous carry and a low-80s slider with plenty of sweep.
Padres: Kevin Kopps, RHP (No. 15)
There have been 43 Golden Spikes Award winners. Only one has been a reliever. The Padres third-rounder used an elite, late-moving cutter to dominate as a redshirt senior at Arkansas, where he finished with a 0.90 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 131 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings. San Diego sent the 25-year-old right-hander to three levels in 2021 and has opened him at Double-A San Antonio to begin this season. While his other pitches aren’t nearly on the same level as the cutter, his mastery of this arsenal could get him to the top level just a year after he was drafted.
Rockies: Riley Pint, RHP
How great of a story would this be? The No. 4 overall pick of the 2016 Draft was once considered to be one of the top pitching prospects in the game because of his high-octane stuff, but his struggles to find the strike zone have been well-documented. He retired from the game in 2021, but decided to come back this year and the stuff has been as nasty as ever, with a fastball 96-99 mph and a largely unhittable 89-92 mph slider. So far, he’s thrown strikes in his five innings of work and the Rockies plan to ease him slowly into higher-leverage innings.