The Miami Marlins' best-rated prospect out of the consensus of various sources heading into the 2016 season is Tyler Kolek, the team's 2014 first-round draft pick. Kolek serves as the team's most important prospect in terms of development, as he holds one of the highest upsides of any player in the team's barren farm system. At the same time, Kolek's development took a big step back in 2015, and another season like that one may be devastating to his stock as a high draft pick.
Kolek was the second pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, selected by the Marlins out of a triumvirate of pitchers competing for the first pick in the draft. That season, it was agreed upon that prep pitchers Kolek and Brady Aiken along with North Carolina State university southpaw Carlos Rodon were all in the running for the top pitcher in the draft class. Aiken was selected first by the Houston Astros, and the Marlins had the option of a Cuban-American college pitcher with great numbers but more questions about his ability after a disappointing follow-up to a breakout freshman campaign and a hard-throwing midwestern right-handed prep pitcher with all the looks and physique of an ace. Given what we know about the Marlins' history of drafts, it should not surprise anyone that they went with the higher upside Kolek and hoped he would develop into another Josh Beckett. The Marlins signed Kolek to the third-largest signing bonus of any prep pitcher in history and sent him off to work in the minors.
Kolek's 2015 season came after a brief stint in rookie ball in 2014. He was aggressively promoted to Low-A Greensboro in 2015 and looked as though he was a lost 19-year-old playing above his head. Unlike the Beckett comparison, Kolek struggled all season, particularly with control. He walked 12.2 percent of batters faced and did not complement that with a good strikeout component. His strikeouts were down to just 16.2 percent, indicative of a pitcher who lacked command of the strike zone and couldn't find the plate.
Kolek was tasked to work on his secondary offerings for a lot of last year, but it made his entire game suffer. He tinkered with the curveball and changeup, but was still largely ineffective with either pitch. Meanwhile, his fastball dipped in velocity while facing game competition, going down to as low as the high-80's despite his triple-digits reputation. These fluctuations were even more concerning than the bad numbers suggested.
Kolek works a fastball that has more consistently been in the low-to-mid 90's rather than the high-90's to 100's that we had heard and seen before the draft. It is possible that live competition and/or the tinkering of his secondary offerings has changed some of his mechanics and made his fastball less consistent. However, the fastball is mechanically sound and has good downward movement at all velocities, making it an ideal go-to first pitch particularly versus right-handers. If he can remain consistent with the mechanics and keep up with the regular pitching schedule in professional baseball, it should at least settle into the mid-90's and provide ground balls and whiffs in the future. The upside on the pitch is tremendous as well.
The problem with Kolek is everything else. His fastball command appears to be passable, but everything else is skewed. His breaking pitch, a midway option between a curve and a slider, has improved since initially seen, but it still appears erratic and out of control. In watching the above video from Baseball Prospectus, it appears notable that Kolek stretches out his delivery and stride when throwing the breaking pitch, which could also telegraph its usage. You can also see him miss catcher placement several times with either the breaking pitch or his changeup. The changeup is the weakest of his offerings and will be necessary for him to be a starter.
The mechanical issues are at least something that can be coached out, and there is still plenty of opportunity for minor league instructors to work with Kolek to develop his secondary game and add a consistent velocity to the very workable fastball. However, it is clear that Kolek is not yet developed enough to handle the higher minors anytime soon barring a breakthrough; he clearly is not nearly as polished as initially thought.
Kolek should start in Low-A Greensboro again in a repeat campaign after what was probably too aggressive a promotion in retrospect. The Fish have to be patient with Kolek, as it is unlikely he will be ready for a promotion to the high minors for another year or two. At Greensboro, he should be tasked now to work on mixing his pitches into regular action rather than being told to work primarily on the secondary offerings; this perhaps will help him learn the use of these additional pitches and it should keep his work on the erratic fastball more fresh.
Upside and pedigree leaves Kolek as the team's best pitching prospect by default, but this season is critical for keeping that standing. Another bad year repeating the same level would be a really bad look for the former first-round pick, and all of those problems that came to light last season will look more permanent without some improvement in the numbers. Expect a drop in the standings next year unless he begins to put some progress in motion and receives a midseason look in High-A Jupiter.
Likely 2016 Level: Low-A Greensboro
Major League ETA: 2018
Kolek’s command and inconsistent offspeed stuff are his biggest limiting factors in reaching his lofty potential. His delivery is fast and aggressive, yet athletic enough to keep everything consistent. He may have issues keeping his lower half mobile as he matures, but right now he has a great balance of strength and sequencing that allow for some upside in his command projection.
- Dan Farnsworth, FanGraphs
It starts with his fastball. Often clocked in triple digits, he can get plane and sink from the extension on delivery. Alas, when he's asked to work on regular rest his heater will dip into the low 90s, and will flatten or stay up in the zone.
- Christopher Crawford and BP's prospect staff, Baseball Prospectus
Very high upside, but very high risk as well. Will rank number one in the system on most lists and that’s defensible, but if you just call him Player X instead of Tyler Kolek, it gets harder to make the case that he’s significantly more valuable than Garrett or Naylor. Based solely on the merits and not the draft slot, he’s not.
- John Sickels, Minor League Ball