Prospect A-Z had a tough letter yesterday in Q, and the subject was Padres reliever Kevin Quackenbush. He has the potential to pitch in middle relief for San Diego in a year or two, but that might be his ceiling. He made his pro debut with Eugene in the Northwest League and dominated, so the Padres promoted him to the Midwest League where he again dominated. From there, the entry deviated to a discussion of well known figures in baseball with names beginning in Q. It’ll shift back to a more conventional entry with Texas starter Robbie Ross.
Robbie Ross, LHP, Texas Rangers (2011: A+ Myrtle Beach, AA Frisco)
The Rangers system thinned out a bit with the deadline deal that brought them Mike Adams from San Diego. With Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin out of the organization, Ross secures his spot as a top 10 prospect in a deep organization with a lot of lower level, high ceiling talent. He’s one of three pitchers the Rangers have in the upper minors that could help the major league rotation soon, joining Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez, all of which could be in AAA to start 2012.
Ross signed an overslot deal in the second round of the 2008 draft but didn’t make his pro debut until the following year with Spokane in the Northwest League. He proved to be too good for the league, finishing first in strikeouts per nine innings while posting a 2.66 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He moved up to start the following season with Hickory in the South Atlantic League where he continued to pitch well. His ERA had a slight decrease while his WHIP went up just a little bit. In 2009 with Spokane, a remarkable 85% (approximation) of his outs came via strikeout or on the ground. With Hickory the next year, that percentage declined below 70%, still impressive, but it was a dramatic decrease in strikeout rate.
Nonetheless, it was an impressive showing, and the Rangers rewarded him with a midseason promotion to Bakersfield. Of course, I use the term rewarded loosely because he had to pitch in Bakersfield, hardly rewarding for pitchers. His stats reflected the difficult environment. His strikeout and groundball rates went up which is good, but his opponents batting averaged increased 60 points to .305. Was it a matter of luck? 84% of his outs came via strikeout or on the ground which shows that he was still effective in some ways. His BB/9 was still decent, so perhaps he was just a victim of a high BABIP.
Ross didn’t receive a promotion to start the 2011 season, but he did go from Bakersfield to the beach thanks to the Rangers switching high-A affiliates to Myrtle Beach. They went from a hitters league to a pitchers league, and his numbers improved greatly, probably not just due to the change in parks. His strikeout rate increased, and his ERA dropped to 2.26 in 20 starts. He returned to the Cal League for the California/Carolina League All-Star Game, and about a month and a half later, he reached AA. He made six strong starts to continue his breakout season. He struck out nearly a batter an inning while only allowing one hit/walk per inning.
Ross averaged just about 6 innings per start in 2011, an impressive feat for a minor leaguer. For Ross, it’s especially important because durability is one of the primary concerns about his career. At 5’11 and 185 pounds, he doesn’t have the ideal size for a starter, but he could always be one of the rare exceptions and succeed. Despite being shorter than the average pitcher, his low 90′s fastball has great movement which is why he generates all the ground balls he does. If he can keep developing his slider to become a consistent, above average pitch, his strikeout rate should continue to improve. Ross has also shown a good feel for a changeup.
Questions linger though. Are his secondary pitches good enough to allow him to continue starting? Is he durable enough to handle a starter’s workload year after year? Ross still has plenty of time to provide answers. He could start 2012 back in AA without much experience there, but he’ll be at AAA at some point. Maybe the Rangers are a good organization for him. With C.J. Wilson, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando and Derek Holland moving in and out of the rotation and bullpen, they have experience in handling those transitions well.
Come back tomorrow to wrap up this week of Prospect A-Z. Will it be a Red Sox hitter that tends to strike out, a starter that will help continue to remake the Diamondbacks rotation or a solid Nationals pitcher now troubled by elbow problems?