Selected as a third-day project with intriguing potential in the 2015 draft, Imani Abdullah proved to be a quick study in his first full professional season. Abdullah showed more polish and already improved stuff in 72 innings at Great Lakes and appears poised to take the next step in 2017. While his gains in velocity are already impressive, his ultimate ceiling is still tied to how much improvement he can continue to make as he matures physically.
It’s easy to look at Abdullah as the consolation prize of the 2015 draft, though to be fair, the team likely intended to sign him anyway had Kyle Funkhouser agreed to terms with the Dodgers as their second first rounder. Over a year later, the two are on opposite paths, with Abdullah’s star rising quickly after displaying more poise and pitchability than I expected from the teenager.
One of the big pluses in initially evaluating Abdullah was his broad frame and physicality. Abdullah is long and rangy, already listed at 6’4 and 205 lbs. With more room for added muscle. He’s athletic and repeats his delivery quite easily, though his delivery can look a bit stiff and too upright. His overall arm speed is good and Abdullah stays consistent in his three-quarters slot, though he can show the ball a little too much at the back of his delivery.
The other big initial plus with Abdullah was his advanced feel for spin as a prep arm, and Abdullah still has the makings of an above-average curveball. He flashed his curve quite often in his prep videos, and the pitch would show tight spin and 1-to-7 break. Abdullah can control it for a strike as well as work it away from right handers as a chase pitch.
As a prep pitcher, Abdullah’s fastball generally worked in the upper 80s. Abdullah has already bumped his sitting velocity into the low 90s in just his first full season. He controls the pitch very well, though he could command it better away from the heart of the plate. He pitches on a tall plane given his delivery, and the pitch doesn’t have much life presently, but the potential for a plus pitch it here given his physical upside.
Abdullah has already shown advanced control in Low A, limiting batters to just a 4.1 walk percentage last season, a remarkable number for a teenage prospect that is still developing physically. Abdullah can control both his fastball and curveball in the zone, and has worked in a change-up to his repertoire.
The next big step for Abdullah’s professional prospects will be adding more swing-and-miss potential to his stuff. I see room for growth here in two areas, refining his command and continuing to increase his sitting velocity. The first area should improve with more innings, as Abdullah pitched just 72 innings last season but could see a jump closer to one hundred in 2017 depending on how quickly he is assigned to a full season team (he was held back early last season to limit innings and likely avoid the cold).
Velocity gains are the more ambiguous part of the equation, though there’s plenty of reason for optimism. For starters, Abdullah has plenty of room in his long frame to add strength and build up stamina. Additionally, he could continue to loosen his delivery and improve his fluidity in hopes of increasing his arm speed while adding more of his lower half into his delivery.
Should Abdullah make only modest physical gains going forward, he still has the upside of a number three starter that can fill the zone, albeit one that lacks first division quality. Yet, Abdullah’s ceiling is still quite high and if he can push his velocity more consistently into the mid 90s, I might have to bump his ceiling grade even higher.
The Dodgers have plenty of time to give Abdullah to find his ultimate ceiling. He’ll turn just 20 during this season, and the California League could represent a stiff test for Abdullah, who had a propensity to surrender a fair amount of fly balls in Low-A. Either Abdullah’s stuff will take another step forward and he starts overpowering hitters, or Abdullah will have to learn quickly to command his pitches to the fringes of the strike zone.
I would still put Abdullah’s major league ETA in the distant future. The Dodgers will likely gradually build his innings, and he may need additional time in High-A in 2018 before reaching Double-A. The quality of players ahead of Abdullah will allow the Dodgers to be patient with him, though few pitchers in the system can match Abdullah’s upside. With his potential, Abdullah will be a major breakout candidate in each of the next couple of seasons.