Last year at this time, James Kaprielian was pitching in college. He could be the fastest-mover in the Yankees’ farm system in 2016. Do not be surprised if his first full professional season ends in New York. Associated Press photo.
Well, this is it. The annual rundown of the Blog’s Top 15 Yankees Prospects concludes today with a look at this year’s No. 1 prospect, pitcher James Kaprielian.
Position: Starting pitcher
40-man roster: No
In 2015: Kaprielian started the season at…UCLA.
The Yankees selected him with the No. 16 pick in the draft last June, and Kaprielian looked every bit like one of the best college pitchers in the nation in his brief pro career that ensued. Three of his four starts last season came with Staten Island in the New York-Penn League, and he shined. He allowed just two runs on eight hits in nine innings, walking two and striking out 12. His only other start came in the Gulf Coast League, and he overmatched hitters that day during a two-inning stint.
He earned an invitation to Yankees camp this spring, in his first camp.
What’s to like?
Kaprielian was the fourth college pitcher taken in the 2015 draft, but he may have had the most complete repertoire heading into the summer.
As with most every effective pitcer, Kaprielian’s success starts with his fastball, which he can throw for strikes and has shown better velocity as a pro than it did at times at UCLA. It can top out at 95 mph, but he holds pretty steadily at a more-than-acceptable 92-93 mph.
Kaprielian has a developing slider and a change-up which looks at times like it can be an above-average pitch if he continues to work on it.
But, his best pitch is…
The man gets great break on this pitch, and it’s a strikeout offering. It’s the reason his strikeout numbers were so high — albeit in a brief look — last season.
He seemed to have complete control of that offering in 2015. He could bury it in the dirt when he was ahead in the count to get over-anxious hitters to take a weak hack. He could spin it into the zone to use it as another pitch that could help him get ahead in the count. He can make it break bigger or throw it harder and make the break tighter. In this sinker-slider world. there simply aren’t many pitchers in the majors that have the feel for the hook that Kaprielian does.
He’s 22, but you’d think Kaprielian was 30. He throws the fastball, curve and change for strikes whenever he wants to, and he can use all three as a strikeout pitch not because they are all so dynamic, but because hitters really do have to honor all three.
He allowed just 2.9 BB/9 innings in his final two seasons at UCLA, and that looks like it could improve in the pros, where he’ll get more hitters trying to attack him early in the count.
Kaprielian has proven to be extremely durable throughout his high school and college careers, and at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, there’s little question he has the build of an innings eater. He should be able to work deep into games, considering his ability to get ahead in counts and his strong build.
What’s to worry about?
Is he an ace?
It’s the question that surrounded Kaprielian in the draft last year, and really, the fact that he doesn’t have a plus-plus fastball or a mind-bending slider probably kept him out of the draft’s top 10 picks.
Many scouts forecast Kaprielian as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and those types of pitchers can typically be found later in drafts and developed in the farm system.
Teams like the Yankees typically search for potential superstars in the first round, then build around them later. Kaprielian simply may not be a superstar, just a rather reliable option. He’s a classic low-ceiling, high-floor player. There seems little doubt he’ll be a good big leaguer. But, the uptick with his stuff last season will have to be maintained if there’s any hope he can be a top-of-the-rotation stud.
He might be that type of guy if he puts it all together. Or, he might be Joe Blanton, a guy whose big league stuff looked a lot like what Kaprielian was using in college.
He has so many pitches, this has rarely been a noticeable issue. On any given day, he’ll have two of those four pitches working. But there’s honestly little consensus about what his best off-speed pitch actually is. Some scouts say it’s the slider. Others, the change. Others, the curve. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that they all can be great, and they can all be not-so-great. As a pro, there are going to be times when he has to find the feel for a few of those off-speed offerings to go along with the fastball.
What to look for in 2016
It’s expected that Kaprielian will skip the South Atlantic League and go straight to the Florida State League, where he’ll open 2016 with high-A Tampa. If he gets off to a fast start there, it will be off to the races. He could be in Double-A Trenton before long, and it’s hardly out of the question that he’ll finish the season with the RailRiders. It might actually be likely.
The Yankees didn’t take perhaps the most finished-product among pitchers in the 2015 draft to take their time developing him. Kaprielian is in the organization to provide almost immediate help to the Yankees’ rotation, and if he doesn’t suffer any physical setbacks this season, it stands to reason he could be in New York for September with hopes that he can compete for a job in the rotation in 2017.
This is a video from his days with Team USA, but I think you see him get swings and misses on all three of his breaking pitches.
Here’s another outing from his college days at UCLA, against Notre Dame. He featured all four pitches in this video.
This is the best look you’re probably going to get of Kaprielian pitching last season at Staten Island.