Alex Meyer, who entered this season as the bona fide top pitching prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization, saw his season come to an ominous end over the weekend, when he was removed in the second inning of his final start for the Rochester Red Wings due to shoulder stiffness.
The move was deemed "precautionary" but it is unsettling nonetheless, considering that the hard-throwing right-hander missed about a third of the 2013 season because of shoulder problems.
Now, Meyer's designation as the team's best pitching prospect has grown tenuous, not just because of his own question marks but because another young hurler in the organization has risen rapidly, overcoming the odds to emerge as one of the most exciting and unusual arms in the minor leagues.
J.O. Berrios won't be taking his first legal drink until next May, but his spectacular 2014 season certainly deserves a toast.
Berrios gained some immediate fanfare when the touching video of his tear-filled celebration went viral after he was selected by the Twins with the 32nd overall pick in 2012. That fanfare grew with a dominant debut between two levels of rookie ball, where the teenager posted a 1.17 ERA and ridiculous 49-to-4 K/BB ratio over 30 innings.
The enthusiasm surrounding Berrios died down a bit last year in his first exposure to full-season baseball at Cedar Rapids. His 3.99 ERA and 1.40 WHIP were not terrible by any means, especially considering his age, but he certainly looked more human.
Then came this 2014 season. Berrios moved up a level to open in High-A, and he was simply lights-out with the Ft. Myers Miracle. In 16 starts, he went 9-3 with a 1.96 ERA and 109-to-23 K/BB ratio. After watching him rattle off 10 straight quality starts with 82 strikeouts in 66 innings from May 13 through July 4, the Twins -- who have typically fallen on the conservative side when it comes to promoting pitchers -- really had little choice but to bump him up to Double-A.
Berrios, who had turned 20 just a couple weeks before his promotion, became the youngest pitcher to throw in the Eastern League, where the average batter is 24.7 years old. Despite his drastic disadvantage in age and experience, the righty continued to hold his own for New Britain, putting up a 3.54 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over eight starts.
His showing impressed the organization enough that when Class-AAA Rochester -- locked in a tight pennant race and facing a must-win situation on Sunday -- desperately needed a starter to get them a victory, it was Berrios that they looked to. At age 20, the kid was starting in a high-stakes Triple-A contest.
Berrios didn't fare well in the outing, coughing up six runs in three innings, but that's not particularly surprising nor worrisome. Simply putting himself in position to start that game was an incredible feat that frankly ought to be generating a lot more buzz than I've seen.
What I find especially encouraging about Berrios is that an aspect of his game most experts expected to be a weakness has thus far proven to be perhaps his greatest strength. As a relatively short (6'0") specimen who lacks ground ball tendencies, prospect analysts suggested that he was likely to start giving up home runs in bunches once he began facing advanced hitters.
On the contrary, however, Berrios has shown an astonishing ability to keep the ball in the yard. Last year at Cedar Rapids he allowed only six home runs in 19 starts. This year, he yielded the same number in 25 starts. Somehow his ability to limit the long ball has only improved as he has climbed the ladder; in eight starts (40 innings) in Double-A, Berrios was taken deep only twice, by experienced hitters who were more than four years older than him on average. And despite a rough go in his lone Triple-A outing, he didn't give up a bomb.
While the young Berrios was rising meteorically this summer, Meyer was working through a season that was encouraging in many ways but not as overwhelmingly successful. Although he led the International League in strikeout rate, whiffing 27 percent of opposing batters, he also posted the worst walk rate of his career and never showed the ability to pitch deep into games over a prolonged period. He completed six innings only once in his final seven starts. That's not exactly ideal for a 24-year-old in Triple-A.
Meyer still has the best stuff of any pitcher in the system, by most accounts, and probably maintains the highest upside. But Berrios has moved past the point of being that young, undersized kid tearing up the low levels of the minors. What he did this season -- rising through three levels at the age of 20 -- is nothing short of amazing.
Suddenly, unlikely as it may be, he's in a position where he could conceivably debut in the majors next year at age 21. For the record, only Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano have pitched for the Twins at such a young age in the past 20 years.
What do you think? Has Berrios surpassed Meyer as the team's top pitching prospect?