Tampa Bay's top prospect gets chance to show his stuff
By Mike Rosenbaum
Blake Snell won't be making his fourth start of the season for Triple-A Durham on Friday as scheduled. Instead, MLBPipeline.com's No. 12 overall prospect will make his Major League debut Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
The Rays used their seventh of 10 first-round picks on Snell in 2011, selecting him in the supplemental first round (52nd overall) and then signing him away from a Washington commitment with a $684,000 bonus. They brought him along slowly but surely, with parts of two seasons in Rookie ball, before sending him to Class A Bowling Green in 2013.
Snell struggled to throw strikes in his full-season debut, walking 6.6 per nine innings over 99 frames, but still showed the same projectable stuff and natural bat-missing ability (9.6 K/9) that helped him shoot up Draft boards as an amateur. He returned to Bowling Green in 2014 and, with better control and command, dominated over his first eight starts to receive an early promotion to Class A Advanced Charlotte, where he posted 3.94 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 16 starts.
But it wasn't until 2015 that Snell emerged as a potentially elite pitching prospect. He opened the season with 46 consecutive scoreless innings between Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery, during which he allowed just 18 hits (none for extra bases) with a 54/19 K/BB ratio. Snell continued to dominate after a promotion to Triple-A Durham, posting a 1.83 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings, to finish with the Minors' best ERA (1.41) and the fourth-highest strikeout total (163) en route to being named MLBPipeline's Pitcher of the Year.
Snell, 23, now gets the call with the Rays in need of a starter after using Erasmo Ramirez in relief Thursday night against Boston. In Snell's short time with Durham this season, he had pitched to 2.51 ERA and 21/7 K/BB ratio in 14 1/3 innings.
Though he may be used on an as-needed basis for now, with Alex Cobb still working his way back from Tommy John surgery, Snell, the Rays' No. 1 prospect, certainly has the stuff to make a case for permanent residency in the team's rotation.
Snell usually operates at 92-94 mph with his fastball but can run it up to 96, and the pitch consistently plays up due to its exceptional late life. On top of that, Snell, at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, gets big-time extension toward the plate, which, when combined with his natural deception, creates a difficult look for opposing hitters, righties and lefties alike.
Snell's slider is a second plus offering, thrown with sharp tilt and two-plane action that helps him miss plenty of bats, and his command of the pitch has improved markedly since 2015. Snell's changeup lags behind his other two offerings but is a weapon nonetheless, thrown with convincing arm speed and late fading action that helps him neutralize right-handed hitters.
Snell has trimmed his walk rate as he's climbed the Minor League ladder but still has gains to make both with his control and command. He's shown that he can still be effective even when he struggles to throw strikes, which speaks to his tremendous ceiling once everything comes together. In those instances, though, an elevated pitch count usually keeps him from pitching deep into games.
Snell has never spent time on the disabled list as a professional, but he'll need to continue getting stronger to handle the rigors of a full season, especially at the highest level.
Should the remainder of Snell's development go as planned, there's every reason to believe he can develop into a frontline starter. His walk rate is likely to regress against big league hitters, and he probably won't throw more than 90-100 pitches in a given start -- he's thrown 100-plus pitches on four occasions since the start of 2015 -- but there's little doubt that Snell has both the stuff and makeup to make an immediate impact in the Rays' rotation.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.