GB Players to Watch – Part 2

Here’s Darius Austin to introduce a couple of the Minor Leagues’ hottest British stars…

In my last piece here at Bat Flips & Nerds, I picked out five players from Great Britain’s World Baseball Classic qualifier team who will be worth following in the upcoming season. Ignoring the fact that I appear to have inadvertently caused Chris Reed to retire, I wanted to look at a couple more interesting names who did not appear on the roster for those games, but you are still likely to find on a GB roster in the future.

Jake Esch

jacob_eschAge: 26

Born: St Paul, Minnesota

Organisation: Miami Marlins
Position: Pitcher
Throws: Right

2016 Statistics:. 4.03 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 82/37 K/BB in 118 1/3 innings at Double-A Jacksonville

5.70 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 14/9 K/BB in 23 2/3 innings at Triple-A New Orleans

5.54 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 10/6 K/BB in 13 innings with the Marlins

Esch reached the majors for the first time in 2016, making three starts as a late-August call-up for Miami. He’s eligible for Great Britain because his mother is from St. Austell, but it was that call-up which actually prevented him from being part of the qualifier team, as it came just a few weeks before the qualifier. While most minor leaguers on the team were finishing up their season and preparing to join the GB squad, Esch was pitching for the Marlins. He did play for GB in the 2013 qualifiers, getting the win against the Czech Republic with a 6-inning, 2-run start.

Unfortunately, he gave up four home runs in those first 13 MLB innings, making his first taste of the highest level not quite what he would have hoped for. He did also pick up his first major league hit in the process, and struck out experienced Mets shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in his first start.

The 26-year-old averages 91 mph with his fastball but can touch 95. He complements that with a potential plus slider at around 87-88 and, to a lesser extent, a changeup and curveball, although neither pitch is as well-regarded as the slider. Consistency is frequently the issue, as Esch has yet to show he can post the sort of control numbers required to really stick as a starter and he struggles with commanding his off-speed deliveries. It should be noted that the Marlins Triple-A affiliate also play in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, although New Orleans itself is one of the better parks to pitch in.

As Esch will turn 27 in a couple of months and has made it to the majors, he’s projected to receive at least a small amount of playing time in 2017, although whether that materialises likely depends on some improvement at Triple-A. Esch has barely been used as a reliever since the Marlins started to develop him as a starter full-time in 2013, but if the control and command don’t come along, that may be a better role for him, especially if his velocity can take a jump in the bullpen and he can improve his consistency with the slider.

He is on the Marlins’ 40-man roster, making him one of the more likely candidates to get called up in the event of an injury or if a spot-starter is needed. That also means he’ll be appearing in Spring Training games, so keep an eye out for him over the coming weeks. The Marlins begin their schedule against the Cardinals tomorrow.

P.J. Conlon

conlon960_l0mxg2o2_mlhaejb0

Age: 23

Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Organisation: New York Mets
Position: Pitcher
Throws: Left

2016 Statistics:. 1.84 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 61/10 K/BB in 78 1/3 innings at Low-A Columbia

1.41 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 51/14 K/BB in 63 2/3 innings at High-A St. Lucie

Conlon was drafted in the 13th round in 2015 out of the University of San Diego. He actually generated so much buzz with his performance last year that he has been invited to Spring Training and was recently interviewed by the New York Post. His parents met in California but his mother is from Scotland and his father from Ireland, so they returned to live in Belfast before moving back when Conlon was 2, with Northern Ireland still experiencing the tail end of the Troubles.

As Conlon told the Post in that article, he would have pitched for GB in the qualifier but he had already reached his innings limit for the year, with over 140 across two levels. Along with elite shortstop prospect Amed Rosario, he won the Sterling Award for top prospect in the Mets system last year, with the lowest ERA at any level of the minors.

The 23-year-old doesn’t have a blistering fastball, but his changeup is earning rave reviews. Baseball Prospectus prospect analyst David Lee called it a “true major-league-quality out pitch” in June last year. The slider and curve aren’t at that level and there are questions about his unusual delivery, but he seems to be able to maintain excellent control and command to offset his lesser velocity. Here he is striking out seven for the Columbia Fireflies last year, including making some hitters look very silly with that changeup.

Mets GM Sandy Alderson has indicated that Conlon will be a legitimate contender for a bullpen spot this spring. The Mets seem to be on the lookout for another lefty to back up Jerry Blevins, and while Conlon isn’t the front-runner, all indications are that he’s in the mix. It’s more likely that he’ll be under serious consideration next year, though, so if he doesn’t crack the roster, look for him to carve up Double-A the same way he did at the lower levels in 2016. The Mets start their Spring Training slate against the Red Sox today.

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