Chad James disappointed more than any other Miami Marlins prospect this year. The former first round draft pick struggled in his second year pitching for high Class-A Jupiter.
The Miami Marlins selected Chad James with the eighteenth pick in the first round of the 2009 draft, signing the young Oklahoma lefty to a $1.7 million contract. Baseball America spoke highly of James before draft day, praising his changeup and athleticism: "He continues to have success with a change-up that ranks as one of the best among this draft's high schoolers. James has some minor delivery issues, but he's so athletic that he should be able to make those tweaks with ease." The magazine later named him the Marlins' top pitching prospect and said that he could quickly rise through Jupiter and into the upper minors.
This prediction never came to pass. His 2011 season was filled with a number of setbacks. James saw his fastball velocity drop, possibly the result of an attempt to locate the pitch better. He failed to throw his curveball reliably and the Marlins made significant changes to his changeup. All of this resulted in a 3.80 ERA in 149 innings pitched, along with 51 walks and 124 strikeouts. James did not look like a dominating starter as he did two years before, but nor did he look like a failing prospect. He was 20 years old, pitching against older competition.
The Marlins decided to take the conservative path with James and leave him in Jupiter to begin the season, hoping that he might find some consistency in an easier environment. James is now a year older and his future as a prospect is more uncertain than ever. Repeating high Class-A ball, he pitched fewer innings with worse results. He finished with a 4.87 ERA (a full point higher than last year's figure) in 114 innings pitched, striking out 80 batters and walking 50.
The problem with James appears rooted in his mechanical inconsistency and his inability to target his fastball inside the strike-zone. What worries me so much is that Jupiter is the second most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the Florida State League, an already well-known pitchers' league. Even with an inconsistent fastball, James should be cleaving through batters. A prospect repeating a league usually concerns me, but making no improvement or even regressing while repeating a league is a huge red flag that something is wrong. I do not know how James is supposed to advance to Double-A or Triple-A and succeed.
I am not willing to say that James can never be a successful starter in the majors, but the likelihood of that outcome looks worse and worse every year. He will be age appropriate for Double-A next year, but the competition will be harder and the margin for error smaller.