The rarest and most coveted type of prospect in the Minnesota Twins' system has been the hard-throwing, dominant starting pitcher. Shortcomings in this area have been reflected in the big-league rotation, where a lack of front-end talent has been a primary downfall during the club's recent stretch of misery.
There is no greater need in this organization than a pitcher with the ability to develop into a legitimate No. 1 who can miss bats and regularly shut down opposing lineups. For that reason, I consider Alex Meyer the single most important prospect the Twins have, even if he's not necessarily the best (or second-best).
Heat is Meyer's calling card. That was evident when he was named Mr. Baseball in the state of Indiana as a senior in high school, finishing 8-0 with 108 strikeouts and a 0.95 ERA in 51 innings for Greensburg High School. Meyer achieved the outstanding results by relying on a hard fastball and a sharp spike curve that set him apart from his prep peers.
Following Meyer's senior year, the Red Sox tried to fish him away from a commitment to the University of Kentucky by offering him a massive $2 million signing bonus as a 20th-round pick, but the righty elected instead to join the Wildcats.
He improved his stock with three strong seasons at UK and was selected in the first round, with the 23rd overall pick, by the Nationals in the 2011 draft.
It's common for high draft picks out of college to move quickly when they reach pro ball, and Meyer was no exception. In his first season as a member of the Nationals system, he cruised through two levels of Single-A, finishing with a 2.86 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 139/45 K/BB ratio in 25 starts. Over 129 innings, he allowed only 97 hits, holding the overmatched opposition to a .603 OPS.
After putting together a great first season in the pros, Meyer soon found himself on the move, traded to Minnesota in exchange for Denard Span. His rapid ascent continued in the new organization as he headed straight to Double-A and continued to excel while piling up strikeouts at a phenomenal rate.
Though his breaking ball has drawn rave reviews as a devastating secondary pitch, and his changeup is coming along, Meyer's fastball is the star of the show. Bearing down from his sky-scraping 6'9" frame, the heater routinely hurdles toward the plate in the upper-90s with natural life, and as he's aged into his mid-20s Meyer has only added velocity.
While watching him pitch in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago, ESPN.com's prospect wonk Keith Law reported that Meyer was routinely working at 98 mph with the fastball and touching 99 often. Many observers, including Law, noted that the lanky right-hander touched triple digits on multiple occasions.
That's a level of gas that the Twins haven't gotten from a starter since... ever?
Meyer was a dominant force in New Britain last year, striking out 28 percent of the batters he faced. His arsenal is almost certainly good enough to play at the highest level right now, and at 24 he has reached an age where many top prospects break into the majors if they haven't already. Let's get him up, right?
Not So Fast...
There are a few factors that will likely delay Meyer's arrival, at least a bit. The first is the logjam in the major-league rotation, created by the addition of multiple veteran free agents and the presence of three returning hurlers who are out of options.
Meyer has better stuff than anyone currently slated to be in the starting five, even by the admission of one of those five, but there's no rush to throw him in there. He hasn't pitched above Double-A and still hasn't been added to the 40-man roster, whereas there are more urgent decisions to be made on other starters in front of him.
And Meyer isn't without his own warts. He's had some command issues, though nothing too alarming.
It's fairly typical for pitchers his size to have to refine their location over time. Just look at Randy Johnson, who -- at a lanky 6'10" and 225 lbs. -- had a similar build. He had a major problem with walks early in his career before ultimately finding his release and becoming a Hall of Famer.
Meyer's control problems haven't been nearly as pronounced as those of a young Johnson, but still you get the sense that the Twins would like to see him hit his spots a little more consistently before they give him a shot.
The larger concern is health. Meyer was limited to 13 starts with the Rock Cats last year due to a shoulder injury that cost him about two months of the season. He came back and pitched well at the end of the year, carrying that over into the AFL, but shoulder soreness can be a lingering malady for many pitchers.
Meyer's durability will be a question mark until he enjoys a prolonged period of clean health, and even if he does he'll still probably be held to a strict innings limit this year after throwing only 78 frames in 2013 (about 100 if you include the AFL).
All of this means that, while Meyer is likely to make his major-league debut sometime this year, we probably won't see the full impact of his ability before 2015 at least.
Until then, the term "ace in the hole" seems more than fitting.