As the 11th-round pick for the Dodgers out of the past June draft and having just wrapped up his senior season at Stanford, you may be surprised to know that A.J. Vanegas is one of the more famous names on this list. Vanegas has been a serious draft follow on three occasions; first as a promising high school senior that hadn’t quite filled out his frame, and now most recently as a well built power arm coming out of the Cardinal Pen.
On paper, Vanegas is not the type of player I typically buy into at this point, but having taken an interest in him for the past two drafts, I believe in the potential he can offer the parent club in a short time.
The first thing you will likely notice when you watch Vanegas is the athleticism. A.J. is listed at 6’3, 205 pounds, but has the frame to easily carry another 20 pounds without notice and appears pretty stout as is. In filling out his frame, Vanegas’ fastball has jumped from 90 mph as a HS senior, to one touching 97 mph now.
That alone should have made Vanegas immensely attractive to teams, but he has been slowed by injuries to the point that, despite being a college senior signee, Vanegas is still a raw arm, and one now left to remain a pen guy. Unfortunately for Vanegas, he’s lost valuable innings during years that he should have been polishing up his repertoire and honing his command. This is currently evident in his lack of a changeup and inconsistency in his breaking ball.
Despite long layoffs during his college career, Vanegas has an easy, repeatable delivery that speaks to his athleticism. Vanegas does have a slight stab before coming to the plate, but his action is short, quick and consistent, and he knows how to use his core and lower half to help drive his momentum toward home. Given the recoil and leg lift from the stretch, Vanegas’ delivery is ‘pure reliever’ now, and likely will pay little mind to the running game as a late reliever. The key takeaway here, though, is that he’s athletic enough and has the delivery to clean up his command enough to the point to allow the quality of his stuff to play up.
Vanegas’ stuff is where his true potential lies. As mentioned Vanegas’ fastball can touch 97 mph now, and given the freshness of his arm and room in his frame for more strength, I expect he can add a tick or two to the top end, and reach 95-97 consistently from outing to outing.
Beyond the velocity, Vanegas’ fastball features late arm-side life and can be tough on right-handers inside. When it’s on, Vanegas’ slider is a 60-65 grade pitch, with 11-to-5 break that can miss bats in the strike zone and doesn’t need to be buried or chased off the plate to be effective. He throws both pitches from the same slot and, with more consistency, hitters will have a tough time reading the slider out of hand. The problem with the slider at the moment is at times the ball will pop out of his hand, giving the hitter a better chance of picking it up early, and causes him to miss up and to his arm side with the pitch.
The biggest unanswerable question I have with Vanegas is why he lasted until the 11th round as a senior sign with still more upside. There’s always going to be a part of me that wonders "what if" Vanegas hadn’t lost development time and could put his workhorse frame to use in the rotation. Both issues, however, are largely immaterial and the key for Vanegas now is to get consistent mound time to improve his command and sharpen his slider.
If he’s not closing games, Vanegas should have the versatility of working back-to-back or multiple innings more frequently given how well the arm action works. I’d expect Vanegas to return to Great Lakes to start the season, but he can go as far as his arm will take him this year. He’ll turn 23 toward the end of the 2015 season, and doesn’t have to mature much more physically to be equipped for the big leagues. Realistically, Double-A Tulsa should be the goal for A.J. by year’s end, as that would mean he’d cross the hurdle of the tough pitching environs of the Cal League in his first full season in the pros, and only two seasons removed from his back injury.
While I may buy into Vanegas’ back end bullpen potential more than other relievers that will appear on this list, I do recognize that he is currently the furthest away from majors and understand the caveats that comes with that. Vanegas will have to prove himself across two to three more levels of minor league ball before he’s receive the same opportunity that guys ahead of him have had or can expect to have in 2015. Vanegas makes the list on potential and the probability of him realizing it quickly. Now he just needs continued good health and innings to prove it.