Stop us if this sounds familiar.
A promising young pitcher, in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery in 2011, is raising eyebrows and rising quickly through the organization. Following the same path as Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and more recently Nathan Karns, another powerful right-hander is looking to claim the title of “next.” His name is Taylor Jordan, and if you don’t know who is already, you will soon.
Jordan began the 2013 campaign at High-A Potomac, where he cruised for six starts, amassing a 2-1 record and a 1.24 ERA (5 ER/36.1 IP). He also showed impressive peripheral numbers, striking out 29 while walking just six over that span.
That earned him a promotion to Double-A, long considered the truest test for a rising prospect. Through his first seven starts at his new level, Jordan has passed with flying colors.
“The competition is better,” says Jordan of the Double-A level. “The hitters have a much better approach. If you miss a pitch, it seems like they all have a chance to capitalize.”
And while it may indeed seem that way to Jordan, few if any actually have done so against him. Despite getting shelved by a rain delay just one inning into one of his outings, Jordan breezed to four wins in his first six outings before compiling a masterpiece in his most recent start, a five-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts. He is now 5-0 with a 0.66 ERA (3 ER/41.0 IP) and has struck out 39 against just six walks. He’s holding opposing batters to a .181 average and has yet to allow a home run, his WHIP an eye-popping 0.78.
The lack of power numbers against Jordan is no coincidence. Ranked the Nationals 13th-best prospect coming into the year by Baseball America, his repertoire begins with a heavy, sinking fastball in the low to mid-90s, very similar to that of Ross Detwiler’s.
“Ever since I was 11 years old, or younger, my coach told me that I was a little sinkerballer,” recalls Jordan. “I didn’t really understand that, didn’t know what it meant at that time. I always had one, whether or not I knew what it meant.”
His natural movement had translated into great success so far. Combined with a change-up that sinks and fades away from lefties and a slider with hard, late break away from righties, the rest of Jordan’s repertoire more closely mimics Zimmermann’s, one which all of baseball has seen just how effective it can be this season.
Following in the footsteps of those who have undergone the same surgery, the same long road to recovery, has helped Jordan see the light at the end of the tunnel, making his current success that much sweeter.
“It’s nice to see that hard work has paid off,” he says of Strasburg and Zimmermann’s returns to the big leagues. “It’s a good thing to see other people who’ve had surgeries do well as well. It gives me hope that I’ll get there as well.”
If Jordan continues to succeed at the level he has to this point in the season, it won’t be too long before he gets that opportunity.
The Rule 5 Draft is one of the most intricately constructed of baseball’s many minutiae. It exists to give veteran Minor League players who are not on their team’s 40-man roster a chance to make another team’s Major League roster. However, if the players aren’t able to break camp with their new team, they are given back to their original club. Four Nationals Minor Leaguers were taken by other teams in last offseason’s draft, but two were returned in the final week of Spring Training, including the 50th overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Jeff Kobernus.
The UC Berkeley product batted .220/.291/.300 with a pair of triples and three RBI in 50 at-bats this spring for Detroit, and was thought by many to be a fairly strong candidate to make the 25-man roster out of camp as a reserve player. Instead, he rejoined an ever-strengthening Nationals Minor League squad at Triple-A Syracuse.
It is easy to see the tool that stands out the most in Kobernus’ game by looking at his stat line. The speedster has swiped 95 bases while being caught just 19 times over the past two seasons, good for an 83 percent success rate. But he has also maintained his other offensive numbers steadily as he has progressed through the system each year, despite missing time to injury.
“He’s a toolsy player who can run, swing the bat, play second base,” said Nationals Assistant GM Bryan Minniti of Kobernus.
After playing almost entirely at second base throughout his career, the Tigers began trying Kobernus in the outfield this spring. After all, their infield was full, and the 24-year-old’s athleticism and speed seemed to profile well for such a switch. Clearly, the Nationals saw the same in Kobernus when they first selected him back in 2009.
“There are some guys where that’s the only tool they have and that gets them to the big leagues,” Minniti explained of Kobernus’ speed. “Jeff has more than just one tool that can play in the big leagues.”
Kobernus’ ability to take his talents and use them in multiple spots around the field may be key in his advancement. With a Nationals squad fairly deep at most positions, it’s an asset to be a player able to fill in anywhere around the diamond.
“It helps you for when there’s a time that a position needs to be filled,” said Kobernus of his versatility. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the one position that you play. If you can play multiple, it gives you a better chance of being able to go up there and stay up there.”
Kobernus need only look as far as Steve Lombardozzi to see his theory in action. A second baseman throughout his minor league career, Lombardozzi was able to stick in the majors last year thanks to his versatility, particularly at third base and in left field.
Kobernus has taken full advantage of his current situation, bursting out of the gates to post an absurd .579/.625/.885 slash line with a triple, a home run, eight runs scored, six RBI and three steals in his first five games with the Chiefs. And while he was understandably disappointed not to make a Major League club out of camp just yet, the experience he gained – especially in terms of mental preparation – was invaluable.
“It was really fun seeing all the big-name guys over there, how they work, how they go about their business,” he said. “Not just preparing for a season, but preparing expecting to get to the World Series.”
That experience will no doubt serve him well as he strives to make it to the Major League level on a Nationals squad filled with many of the same expectations.
Following Baseball America’s ranking of the Top 10 Nationals prospects earlier this week, we turn our attention to a prospect whose journey has largely escaped the spotlight to this point. Rob Wort, the Nationals 30th-round draft pick in 2009, burst onto the scene this past season with the highest strikeout rate in all of Minor League Baseball.
Featuring a power fastball/slider combo, the lean, 6-2, right-handed reliever wrapped up his second full season at High-A Potomac with eye-popping numbers. In 56.2 innings, Wort notched 95 strikeouts against just 19 walks, earning 13 saves for the P-Nats and a spot on the Carolina League All-Star Team.
Wort’s performance was even more impressive in comparison with his peers. Among the more than 2,300 Minor League pitchers to complete at least 40.0 innings in 2012, Wort ranked first in both strikeouts per nine innings (15.1) and strikeout percentage (41.3). The only two professional pitchers with more dominant strikeout numbers than Wort were Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel and Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman, both of whom had historically great seasons in the Major Leagues.
Chris Michalak, Potomac’s pitching coach and a former Major Leaguer himself, has overseen Wort’s development at two Minor League stops. Before his 2012 breakout season, Wort was at his best in 2010 at Low-A Hagerstown – with Michalak coaching him there as well – where he went 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 43.1 innings. After Wort suffered through a lackluster 2011 campaign, the newly promoted Michalak guided a change in approach for the 23-year-old hurler.
“The biggest thing (prior to 2012) was that Rob was able to get by with his fastball and a little different arm angle,” Michalak said. “This year we worked on two things: using his backside and legs to leverage the ball and get later movement on his pitches, and developing his slider. His slider became a legitimate out pitch down and away to right-handed hitters.”
Opposing righties stood little chance against Wort this past season, batting a meager .174/.243/.265 and striking out an astonishing 69 times in 144 plate appearances. Lefties fared only marginally better, hitting at a .247/.349/.392 clip with 26 punchouts in 86 trips to the plate. This was a huge improvement for Wort, after lefties batted .354/.475/.625 and struck out just eight times in 64 plate appearances against him in 2011.
Michalak explained the specific changes that led to Wort’s dramatic improvement against batters from the left side of the plate.
“We wanted to give him more weapons against left-handed hitters,” Michalak said. “Rob tried out a new two-seam fastball and a change-up, which added a couple of wrinkles to what he was doing before. Those became effective pitches for him.”
Should Wort continue his development and eventually earn his way onto the Nationals roster, he would join Toronto left-hander Mark Buehrle as the second Major League player to attend both Francis Howell North High School (St. Charles, Mo.) and Jefferson College (Hillsboro, Mo.). Buehrle was also a late round pick, going to the Chicago White Sox in the 38th round in 1998. Michalak, who was a 12th-round selection out of college and fought his way to the big leagues for the first time at age 27, thinks his pupil has a good shot.
“This year really opened up (Rob’s) eyes a little bit, gave him confidence he could get there,” Michalak said. “If he continues to make adjustments throughout each season, throughout his career, and he’s not afraid to take those adjustments into the game, I don’t see why he doesn’t have a chance.”