All Daniel Winkler has done in parts of four minor league seasons is strike batters out.
The 24-year-old right-hander has whiffed 9.5 batters per nine innings in 396⅔ career frames and has continued the trend this year in a Tulsa rotation that features three other future big leaguers. Winkler arguably outperformed all of them last season, and he's definitively doing so in 2014.
Winkler has been aided by extremely low BABIP numbers over that past couple of seasons, and throughout his pro career, has been the epitome of a fly ball pitcher. The caveats start and end there for Winkler. He is not generous with free passes, never once walking three or more batters per nine innings. Meanwhile, the strikeout rate referred to above speaks for itself.
And yet, scouts are perplexed by Winkler, who still isn't really on anybody's prospect radar. Take a look at some blurbs about Winkler:
"Does not impress radar guns, all he does is get people out, changes speeds, crosses right-handed hitters up with low three-quarters delivery. Durable, efficient, fourth/fifth starter material in a neutral environment but fly ball tendency could be problematic here." -John Sickels, Minor League Ball
"Colorado's 20th-round pick in 2011, has fringy stuff but survived in a tough hitting environment last year thanks to a good sinker and the ability to throw strikes." -Baseball Prospectus Annual, 2013
"Winkler’s 24 and has only made nine starts above Class A. He has a fringy fastball and modest scouting reports. So, it’s easy to forget that Winkler led the minors with 175 strikeouts last season and was the Cal League pitcher of the year. His stuff doesn’t stick out, but so far he’s done well at Double-A Tulsa in 2013." -Baseball America
"Winkler’s going to need that [sharp] command to continue succeeding at Tulsa and beyond. The margin for error will never be great, considering his stuff. But he’s shown thus far he’s capable of making it work." -Jake Seiner, MiLB.com
There's a theme here. Winkler, throughout his career, has been considered by seemingly everyone who has evaluated him as a guy with fringe stuff that might not translate to higher levels. And yet, he's only gotten better as he's gone along. He's played in hitter-friendly leagues and parks as well as pitching-heavy environments, but the parts of his game he can control have been consistent: he doesn't walk many batters and he punches a lot of them out.
And in an era in Major League Baseball in which hitters are striking out at mind-numbing rates, Winkler has the profile that just might be good enough for him to be successful at the back of a rotation. His stuff isn't great, sure, but there have been a lot of pitchers without phenomenal stuff who have succeeded in the majors. Deception is key, and Winkler has it. Just watch some video:
As Seiner first observed, Winkler displays an uncanny ability to hide the ball. How he does this is with a little hitch or loop in his arm motion before he releases the ball. That, combined with a slow leg kick, creates an explosion that makes the ball look like it's traveling faster than it actually is, and the fact that hitters can't pick it up out of his hand only works to accentuate that. The velocity deception in Winkler's fastball is not unlike that of Rafael Betancourt, whose delivery made his heater look like it was one of the upper-90s variety rather than in the lower-90s, where it actually sat.
Winkler's command is not to the level of Betancourt's yet, but compared to most minor league hurlers -- and really, compared to almost every other starting pitcher in the Rockies' system -- it's fantastic.
At 24, Winkler is already in his prime as a pitcher. And the older he gets, the less valuable he'll become. That should be a factor in who gets the next call to the big leagues, but money is likely going to be the largest concern.
That works in Winkler's favor, as well. The longer the Rockies keep Eddie Butler and Jon Gray -- both of whom have exhibited concerns of their own at various points this year -- in the minors, the longer the club will be able to hold onto them. If these guys really are who the organization and scouts everywhere think they are, that plays a huge part in how the Rockies will manage their roster this season. And, not to discount Winkler's status as a prospect, but the Rockies have much less money invested in him, so some of these service time factors used in evaluating the right or wrong time to promote a prospect don't apply to him.
It also doesn't hurt Winkler that Tyler Matzek is still having a hard time getting over the hump, or that Christian Friedrich and Christian Bergman, among others, have taken some pretty significant lumps in Triple-A. The one thing working against Winkler is that the Rockies don't have an open spot on their 40-man roster, but there are also plenty of fringy arms that can be exposed to waivers if needed.
In short, the Rockies have two starters on the 60-day disabled list and are in need of a long reliever, the best candidate for which currently resides in their rotation and was thoroughly roughed up in his last outing. The time could come soon for the Rockies to explore another option for the rotation, whether it be a function of want or absolute, desperate necessity.
The team shouldn't look too far beyond Winkler, who appears as ready for the jump as anyone else in the system and has demonstrated the success to prove it.