Jharel Cotton and Willie Calhoun are representing the Dodgers in the Futures Game later today. Both are having strong seasons at their respective levels of the minor leagues.
Calhoun is doing quite well as a 21-year-old in his first full professional season. He leads the Tulsa Drillers with 17 home runs and is showing a lot of potential for a guy not drafted until the fourth round of last year’s MLB Draft.
Cotton, 24, is in his in his fifth professional season. He was drafted in the 20th round of the 2012 draft — a draft that has produced MLBers in Corey Seager, Paco Rodriguez, Onelki Garcia, Ross Stripling, Darnell Sweeney and Daniel Coulombe. Cotton is sure to debut at some point in the next 12 months.
He’s having a solid season by PCL standards. The ERA (4.74) and FIP (4.34) aren’t great, but he’s still showing plenty of swing-and-miss stuff (29.5 K%) while limiting the damage via free passes (8.5 BB%). He’s a fastball-changeup guy primarily, but he also has a curveball and a cutter. It’s no surprise that he looked up to Pedro Martinez growing up.
Cotton is from the U.S. Virgin Islands and is representing the World squad in the Futures Game. (It’s a US territory, but players from Puerto Rico also represent the World team … it’s screwy, but it also gives more opportunities to more players to play in the prospect All-Star Game).
When I talked to Cotton, he said he was really excited when he heard the news.
“I woke up at 10 a.m. with a text message from Matt Herges, my pitching coach saying to call him,” Cotton said. “So, I was kind of like, ‘Well, why is Matt texting me at 10 a.m. telling me to call him? Is something wrong?’ I ended up calling him and he was like, ‘Hey Jharel, I just wanted to tell you that the Dodgers have selected you to go to the Futures Game.’ My eyes just lit up. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was really an exciting moment and I was happy that he told me that.”
He said the invite to the game means a lot. It also shows the Dodgers view him as more than roster fodder.
“The Dodgers selected me to go there, so, they’re showing a lot of interest in me, which is always a good thing,” Cotton said. “Like, me and Willie Calhoun, we got selected and I’m sure he’s happy as well. He’s excited and I’m just excited to join him there as well.”
As a 20th-round pick, it’s hard to expect to be invited to the Futures Game, and Cotton echoed that sentiment.
“I never thought I would be a Futures Game All-Star selection,” Cotton said. “I always thought that I had to do my best and actually pitch well during the season to get noticed, and I’ve been holding up my part of the bargain for the few years I’ve pitched. But no, I didn’t think I would be a futures star selection.”
He has gone from a late draft pick to a legitimate pitching prospect in the span of five years (but he really made his presence known a couple years ago with Rancho Cucamonga). A lot has changed since he was drafted.
“Before I was drafted out of college, I had a couple injuries that slowed me down a little bit,” Cotton said. “But, you know, just being given that opportunity and coming into pro ball knowing that I had the skill set that I can prove to the Dodgers that I can pitch at this level just helped me a lot. Just showing them that I can go out there, pitch and have fun playing this game that I love.”
While the jump from High-A to Double-A is said to be the hardest, Cotton handled that with relative ease. He posted a 2.30 ERA, 2.87 FIP and a 20.2 K-BB% with Tulsa last season. The move to Triple-A hasn’t been as successful overall, but Cotton has shown flashes of brilliance and the stuff that has him on the Dodger 40-man roster and in line for a big-league debut quite soon.
Cotton said the difference in hitters is the biggest thing he has noticed in Triple-A.
“I feel like Triple-A — it’s a lot better hitters, a lot more patient hitters,” Cotton said. “I feel like when I was in Double-A, I can get away with a ball in the dirt with my changeup and they will swing right over. But here, it has to be a pitch that’s in the zone that’s dropping out of the zone for them to swing and miss. It’s been kind of a grind this season, but, you know, I’d rather grind it out and get better.”
Cotton will be facing some of baseball’s best prospects in the Futures Game, and soon than later, he’ll be facing some of the best hitters in the world in MLB. It’s actually a little strange he hasn’t yet been recalled, considering every Dodger pitcher has been hurt at some point in 2016.
In the end, his debut might have to wait until even 2017 … if it’s to be with the Dodgers. Of course, a kid who is knocking on the door of the majors who can touch the mid-90s with his fastball, has a plus-changeup and developing breaking pitches (especially the cutter) is an attractive trade piece. The deadline is less than a month away, and while I would like to see Cotton remain in the organization, I also wouldn’t be surprised if a team insisted on his inclusion in a trade.
Whatever happens, Cotton’s ascendance has been remarkable, and a huge tip of the cap is owed to the Dodger scouting staff. Finding value in draft picks outside of the first couple rounds is extremely hard. The last 20th-round draft picks (who ended up signing, of course) to even debut in the majors are Matt Duffy (Astros, not Giants), Terrance Gore and Daniel Winkler — all from 2011. Cotton projects to be better than all of them (by a wide margin).
Spend a few minutes watching Cotton and Calhoun in the Futures Game today. They’ll be in Los Angeles before too long.