Great prospects typically move through the minor leagues quickly, rarely spending more than a full season to master a level before moving on to the next challenge. But there are many productive major league players who were not great prospects. A review of the Rangers' current roster reveals that 70 percent of the players were never ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball by Baseball America. Furthermore, 36 percent spent more than a year mastering at least one level as they made their way through the minor leagues.
Michael Kirkman is seeking to join the ranks of the unranked Rangers. Currently pitching at Double-A Frisco, the 22-year-old Kirkman was the Rangers' fifth-round pick in the 2005 amateur draft (No. 159 overall). His rookie-league debut was outstanding, but the next two years were marred by injuries and control problems. Kirkman drastically reduced his walk rate in the Midwest League during 2008 and then dominated the California League at the beginning of 2009. Kirkman has maintained his newfound control since being promoted to the Texas League, though he is having trouble with the more advanced AA-ball hitters that he is facing as a RoughRider.
Kirkman's résumé includes two brief stretches where he profiled like a major leaguer -- 2006 in the Arizona Rookie League and 2009 in the California League. During both periods, he displayed adequate control, a strong strikeout rate, and a good batting average against. The other two-thirds of his career has been replete with forgettable performances. The difficulty that Kirkman has had with AA-ball hitters suggests that his eight-game run of dominance at High-A Bakersfield was likely more hot streak than career turnaround.
As of today's date, Kirkman is probably no higher than 12th in line to receive a start for the Rangers. With only Kevin Millwood coming off that list in the next couple of years and with multiple younger prospects coming up behind him, it seems unlikely that Kirkman will receive an opportunity to start in the major leagues. Unfortunately, the path of least resistance for the left-hander (bullpen LOOGY) is unlikely given his career-long troubles with left-handed hitters (.296 BAA, 1.73 WHIP in 330-plus plate appearances).
Kirkman tore through the California League to start this season after a very promising 2008 saw him completely turn around his two-year stint with severe control problems. In that vein, though, Kirkman's time with Frisco has not been trending well.
In each month since his promotion (May to June, June to July, July to August), Kirkman has seen his walk rate climb. After only throwing 84.1 innings in 2008, Kirkman has now thrown 132.2 innings (through August 21st), a 48.1-inning increase over last season with two to three starts remaining. His dwindling control numbers may be the result of his relatively large workload, but he's still throwing the ball well.
Kirkman features a fastball that sits around 92 mph and frequently hits 94 mph. Prior to this season, Kirkman worked with a curveball and change-up as his two secondary pitches. This year, he reintroduced a slider that he hadn't thrown since 2005.
Kirkman's command hasn't been terribly impressive, but he has pitched at least six innings in each of his last six starts. The fastball has good movement and solid velocity for a left-handed starter. At times, he can really spot it, giving plus potential to this above-average pitch.
He struggled with his curveball for quite a while after his promotion, leaving it up with very little break. The last several times out, though, it was working quite well for him. His prior struggles with the pitch have skewed my view a little bit, but it currently looks like a slightly below-average major league offering. His change-up strikes me as a "show-me" pitch that will occasionally fool a righty. I think it has promise, but it lags behind his other pitches in my mind.
For what amounts to a new pitch, Kirkman's slider has been his best secondary offering this year. When he gets it down in the zone, the pitch gets swings and misses from both lefties and righties. His command of it drags the pitch to a slightly below-average rating, but I feel that it has a great chance to be above average, with an outside shot at becoming a plus pitch.
Command and control will continue to be the big questions surrounding Kirkman's ultimate ceiling. Right now, his arsenal is fringy for projection as a major league starter. How his curveball and change-up continue to develop over the next year will go a long way in determining his ultimate potential.