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Can Gibson go Garza?

Posted by: Nick Nelson under Vikings draft Updated: May 11, 2010 - 11:33 PM

On a busy day of minor-league movement in the Twins organization, the biggest piece of news to come out yesterday was that 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson has been promoted to Class-AA New Britain. Less than a year after being drafted out of the University of Missouri, the right-hander finds himself at the second-highest level of minor-league competition.

Gibson opened the season in Ft. Myers, already a bit of a leap for a kid who hadn't pitched a professional game prior to this year. Nevertheless, Gibson's numbers in Single-A leave little doubt that a call-up was warranted. After scuttling a bit in his first start with the Miracle, Gibson went 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over his next six turns before being bumped up to the next level.

The fast start and quick promotion are sure to remind many fans of Matt Garza, who was drafted in 2005 and was pitching for the Twins in 2006. Certainly, the two players have their similarities. Both were polished right-handed starters drafted in the first round out of college. Both possessed very good command. Both entered their first full seasons at the age of 22. And neither one spent a whole lot of time in Ft. Myers.

But Gibson and Garza have their differences. While Garza relied on flat-out dominance to blow away hitters in the low minors, averaging at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings at every level up through Double-A, Gibson relies more on forcing opposing hitters to drive the ball into the ground. Gibson has the ability to miss bats, of course, as evidenced by his 40 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings with the Miracle, but he's shaping up as a monster ground ball pitcher, having managed a 63.9 percent GB rate over those seven Single-A starts. For reference, Tim Hudson is the only starter in the majors who currently induces a higher percentage of ground balls than that.

This is an aspect that was absent in Garza's game. And while it doesn't necessarily mean Gibson will be a better pitcher than Garza, who is off to a phenomenal start for the Rays this year, it might help him achieve more initial success. For while Garza debuted in his first full professional season, he didn't perform terribly well in that first stint, going 3-6 with a 5.76 and 1.70 WHIP. This is partially because the strikeouts he'd been so dependent on while conquering each level of the minor leagues became tougher to come by against big-league hitters. If Gibson can continue to induce grounders at an outstanding rate, he's likely to keep succeeding as he moves up even if he's not striking everybody out.

Will Gibson follow in Garza's footsteps and debut in the majors during his first pro season? I'd say it's not likely. Unlike Garza, who made 14 minor-league starts after being drafted in 2005, Gibson didn't pitch at all in the Twins organization last season thanks to his signing late and needing to recovery from an arm injury that caused him to drop to the Twins in the draft. Given that his limited innings last season, I suspect the Twins would prefer to follow a somewhat conservative approach with their top young pitching prospect. Throwing him into a major-league rotation at the age of 22 would not seem to be in line with such an approach.

Of course, if the Twins' rotation is struck by a rash of injuries -- which were basically the circumstances that necessitated Garza's call-up in '06 -- there's no telling what measures the Twins might be willing to take, considering how high the stakes are for them this year. Much will depend on whether Gibson can keep whiffing batters at a solid rate while forcing tons of grounders at the next level. This will certainly be something worth keeping an eye on.
 

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