Monday, July 10, 2006

again, jim hendry: whither rich hill?

this page has not failed to notice, since we last discussed rich hill, that he has gone on to dominate the pacific coast league so completely as to put beyond question that there is nothing left for him to accomplish in iowa.

hill has been one of the best pitchers in all of triple-a baseball -- he will start the triple-a all star game on july 12 and his stat line is the best imaginable of any prospect -- 13 gs, 84 ip, 54 h, 17 er, 2 hr, 19 bb, 107 k, 1.81 era, 0.86 whip.

some in the cub blogosphere would expend a lot of effort to rationalize away this stunning performance based upon hill's previous outings for the cubs, call him a "quadruple-a pitcher" and inexplicably try to forget him. this page, for one, can't help but laugh at those who insist that hill's future has been decided in the negative on the one hand while ronny cedeno -- whose career sum has been half a season of mediocrity surrounded by years of total failure, whose obp at the all-star break is a paltry .281, good for 87th of 89 qualified nl players -- is supposedly some kind of bright spot. fantasists can say what they like, one supposes, without feeling the shame of persistent error.

a rationalist, however, is forced to reject conjectures contrived in ignorance of evidence to accept that this is a pitcher that has outperformed the likes of jered weaver and anthony reyes all season long in the second-best league on the planet.

this page would not put hill's ceiling in that class, but the truth is that hill has pitched a grand total of 43 innings of major league baseball. the first two hundred innings of a lot of good baseball pitching careers are rough -- ask superprospect felix hernandez -- and difficulty within those bounds constitutes no valid basis upon which to judge any pitcher's potential. a far better measure of what hill can be lies in his 400-plus minor league innings -- and they have been remarkable in many respects.

hill has long been extremely difficult to hit, compiling a career 7.02 hits/9 in the minor leagues through 2005 (a figure which has since declined with his 2006 performance). he has always used his devastating curve to great effect in getting strikeouts as well, recording a career 12.59 k/9 -- a figure higher than kerry wood's. but, most importantly, he has catalyzed his game by flowering into an extremely accurate pitcher -- hill's 19 walks in 84 innings this season comes on the heels of his 14 walks in 65 innings at iowa last season.

at 26, he is older than some, and age is usually offered as a reason to dismiss hill as a prospect. this page would agree that few truly great pitchers first find the majors at the age of 25 as hill did. but as a university of michigan product, he was drafted at the age of 22 and is in just his fourth year of professional baseball. it is not at all uncommon for college pitchers to come to the majors late -- examining the round in which hill was drafted, we find giants prospect kevin correia, who at 25 has thrown just 116 major league innings, and lance cormier, who had thrown 124. the most successful to date college pitchers of the 2002 draft -- joe blanton, jeff francis, dave bush -- have thrown only in the area of 200 innings in the show. even the first-overall pick of 2002, bryan bullington out of ball state, had as of the end of 2005 thrown just 1.1 major league innings.

hill could just as easily have put in similar numbers of innings as francis, bush and blanton if not for the cubs management -- the team's general lack of patience with young pitchers who do not succeed immediately is all that has stopped it. this writer can see little case to make age an issue for hill if it is not an issue for similar college pitchers like blanton, bush and francis, and it is not by all accounts. college pitchers usually take three to four years to reach the big leagues, and that puts hill right on schedule.

and the statistical evidence of his quality is impossible to ignore. this page here says without equivocation that rich hill is a better pitching prospect at this point than sean marshall, carlos marmol and angel guzman put together -- based on the evidence of his minor league performances, hill is in fact probably the one legitimate prospect of a front-of-the-rotation starter in the cub system more advanced than high-a daytona.

there are but two problems: hill is optionable for just one more year, meaning that by the end of 2007 the cubs will likely either have to call him up for good or move him on; and hill has yet to trust his stuff enough in the bigs to throw strikes as consistently as he clearly can. the cubs are running out of time to keep him, and he has nothing left to prove in the pcl.

this page has asked before: where the hell is he? this is a cubs team that is starting sean marshall and carlos marmol -- two pitchers who the cubs will control for several more years who have never until this year pitched beyond double-a -- and currently wasting roster spots on trash like glendon rusch and roberto novoa. it also fields one of the worst starting staffs in all of baseball in a season that was over long ago.

hill could now be allowed an extended opportunity in a lost year to show the cubs that he can get major league hitters out in the way he can the batters of the pcl. what exactly is the risk in bringing hill up to the cubs now and giving him a rotation spot for the remainder of the year?

this page can see none at all. the air is thick with trade rumors surrounding greg maddux, and this page for one sees his departure before july 31 as a golden opportunity to install hill in the cub rotation for the duration of 2006. he certainly has earned the opportunity, and time is waning for the cubs to give him a long look at the highest level.

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