If 2014 was the breakout year for Jharel Cotton, then 2015 was the official coming out party. Despite missing the start of the season with a wrist injury, he returned to dominate the Texas League and earn a place in Baseball America’s top 10 Dodgers prospects list. While I don’t quite see such a lofty status for Cotton, he’s overcome sizable odds as an undersized late rounder to pitch his way into contention for an active roster spot on the Dodgers at some time during the 2016 season. Like Ross Stripling before him, the question is just what role would fit Cotton best, with relief being the most likely option.
Cotton is a unique player in many facets of his game. Standing under six feet tall but with strikeout stuff, Cotton displays a fearless attitude and challenges hitters with his stuff. While he will always struggle getting plane on his pitches given his frame, he pitches from an awkward over the top delivery that can be deceptive to hitters. Cotton does have a tendency to open up to early and drag his arm behind on off-speed stuff, potentially tipping his pitches to better hitters.
Cotton came to Double-A with the reputation of quality secondary offerings, but it was the fastball that was initially most surprising. Cotton pitched to a wide velocity range, sitting 89-92 mph with some sink but capable of running it up to 95 mph when needed. His command was no better than average, and he does get hit when he leaves the ball up, but the fastball helps to set up the secondary offerings.
His curveball is the pitch that is mostly all over the map in terms of rating. His feel for spin is below average, but he will flash a plus curveball a time or two an outing. There’s still potential to sharpen the break on the pitch. As is, it has above average depth and near 12-6 break, but it has a tendency to break early and can be easier to pick up out of hand.
His change-up draws the most rave reviews, and here’s where I differ from consensus. The pitch itself has plus plus fade, with the bottom dropping out of the pitch, and has proven to be his best strikeout pitch. Like the curveball, the arm speed wavers on the pitch and it too can be seen out of hand at times. When he throws it with good arm speed, it truly can be a 70-grade pitch.
My concern with the pitch is that it is fairly "one speed" and can border on cartoonish. It has such fade that it is awfully difficult to command, and pretty much always follows the same track. I think it can be a real weapon in relief, where hitters don’t get so many looks at the pitch and would be less likely to have it timed the second time through the order.
Cotton has been developed to this point as a starter, but I get the feeling that of all the possible converts, he might be the first to move to relief. for one, his command might be the weakest of the possible converts and better suits a relief profile. He also has a complicated delivery that can be hard for him to repeat, and the ability to red-line every pitch might bring consistency to his arm speed and action. Additionally, shorter stints might see him pitching more consistently at the upper reaches of his velocity band, giving him a greater velocity separation from his plus change-up.
If not relief, Cotton might have as much or more value to the Dodgers as a trade chip. The organization is pretty loaded with right handed starting pitchers that might fit better in relief at roughly the same level of development as Cotton (Josh Sborz, Ross Stripling, Chris Anderson) and others behind him that round out the depth (Scott Barlow, Brock Stewart). While only Anderson can rival Cotton on the potential of his stuff, Cotton has one of the weaker command profiles of this group, and I’m just not a huge fan of his delivery. Cotton would have tremendous value to a second division club that might still envision him starting down the road.
Cotton is likely destined for Triple-A in 2016 in what is shaping up to be a crowded pitching staff. A numbers game at the level might hasten a move to the bullpen if he stays in the organization. His best-case scenario right now is middle reliever with big strikeout potential (think 10 K/9, but 4 BB/9), but if a bullpen switch helps sharpen his curveball and give him two out pitches, late relief isn’t out of the realm of possible career outcomes. Regardless, Cotton continues to defy odds as a 20th rounder lacking prototypical size, and his career to date is already a remarkable success story.