Blue Jays prospect Brandon League
The fireballing Blue Jays right-hander is among the top pitching prospects in the game today.
Toronto Blue Jays
Position: RHP Height: 6-3 Weight: 190 Born: 3/16/83 Bats: Right Throws: Right
The Blue Jays drafted Brandon League in the second round of the 2001 draft, out of high school in Honolulu. This was before the Ricciardi Administration put the kibosh on drafting high school pitchers in the early rounds. League pitched well in short-season ball in '02, then presented mixed results in '03, dominating the South Atlantic League but struggling after promotion to the Florida State League. League began '04 in Double-A, being used out of the bullpen, although he switched back to starting in August. He pitched in three major-league games during a cup-of-coffee, and pitched very well. He is the top pitching prospect in the Blue Jays system, and one of the most promising right-handers in the prospect ranks today.
League created a stir this year by touching 102 mph during the Eastern League All-Star game. His fastball is more often in the 94-96 mph range, sometimes a notch higher. The fastball drops sharply in the strike zone, to the point where it is sometimes confused with a splitter. Hitters pound it into the ground. Even the best hitters have a hard time making solid contact on the heater, which helps League generate ground balls and keeps his home run totals low. His second pitch is an erratic slider. When it works, it is devastating in combination with the fastball, but he will go through phases where he can't control it properly. When used as a starter, League adds a straight changeup to his arsenal. Like the slider, this is an effective pitch when it is working. League's main flaws revolve around command and control, related to inconsistent mechanics. He had a few problems with confidence early in his career, but he took very well to the bullpen and performed well under pressure this year.
League has done well at every stop except Dunedin in '03, but his '04 sharp performance in Double-A takes the sting out of that. His most impressive numbers have been good H/IP ratios, sound ERAs, decent walk rates, and very low home run totals, a pleasant side effect of being a ground ball pitcher. His strikeout rates have been above average (his K/IP was +9 percent this year in the Eastern League), but haven't been as good as you'd expect given the raw velocity on his fastball. The strikeout totals are a reflection of his inconsistent secondary pitches and occasional trouble changing speeds.
Scouts regard his pitching body as nearly perfect; he is well-built, strong, but not too bulky. So far he's avoided any serious injury concerns, although a line drive that hit his pitching arm back in 2002 provided a few scares. The Jays have been conservative with his workload, not wanting to push him too quickly while his mechanics were still in the development stage.
What to expect
Ideally, League would receive some Triple-A innings before being pushed into a major-league job. But a strong spring training performance could give him a slot on the roster, probably in the bullpen. Even if he relieves at first, his long-term destiny could still be in the rotation if he refines the changeup. League could benefit from an Earl Weaver-style "use the rookie in the bullpen then move him to the rotation in a year or two" development plan.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.