Photo credit: Jay Gehres/Courtesy Columbus Clippers

2022 GBI Relief Prospect of the Year Award Nominees (alphabetical order):

The Cleveland Guardians had one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2022, mostly thanks to former starters out in the pen. They were anchored by Emmanuel Clase, who was only a starter in the minors, but has only been a reliever in pro ball, and may be the reliever of the year. James Karinchak has been a career reliever as well, but Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges and Eli Morgan were all developed in the minors as starters, although Stephan never truly started a major league game. The point is, bullpen prospects mostly come as elite relief type prospects (Clase, Karinchak), failed starters (Hentges), and ones that come out of nowhere (Stephan). Last year’s relief prospect of the year here was Francisco Perez, who was out of the organization a few months later and ended up not doing much in Washington, where he landed.

At the moment, none of the relievers in Cleveland’s system would qualify as an elite relief prospect, though some have qualities that make them viable big league relief prospects and could always turn into more the way Stephan did. Deciding this year’s Relief Prospect of the Year was a challenge balancing performance, age, stuff, and future upside. Future upside is probably the hardest consideration to make in all of this. So, let’s take a look at this year’s candidates.

RHP Nic Enright:

PosPlayerAgeLevelIPKBBSVK%BB%ERAFIPWHIP
RHNic Enright25Double-A/Triple-A65.287141133.7%5.4%2.883.090.96

Despite a fastball that sits in the low 90s, Nic Enright has put together back-to-back consistent, impressive seasons. In the last two each seasons, he’s thrown almost 60 innings, has struck out over 80 batters, has run a strikeout rate in the 30% range, has kept his walk rate in the low single digits, and 2022 lowered his ERA below 3.00. He is able to maintain this level of success with a low 90s fastball because of his pinpoint command, big breaking ball, and the ability to tunnel those two pitch from a high release point a little like James Karinchak, with less velocity, and a more calm demeanor. Enright continues to get chances at the end of games as a relief prospect and will have to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason or risk being exposed to the Rule 5 draft, where relievers are the most common target. Someone may see Engright’s control and strikeout rate and see a viable big league pen option.

LHP Tim Herrin

PosPlayerAgeLevelIPKBBWPK%BB%ERAFIPWHIP
LHPTim Herrin25Double-A/Triple-A69.1101231034.1%7.8%4.023.091.24

A starter at Indiana, Tim Herrin went from a fastball in the low to mid-90s in 2021 with control issues, to a fastball that now runs 95-97, and can touch 99. While his control still wanes at times, he has shored it up a decent amount. He also has a cutter and a wipeout slider, both of which he has thrown for more strikes. The increase in velocity has made his stuff tick up and he has missed more bats as a result and struck out an impressive 101 batters in 69 1/3 innings in 2022 between Double-A and Triple-A. Another Rule 5 eligible arm, Herrin and is left-handed and can throw in the upper 90s, making him a very interesting Target in a Rule 5 draft if Cleveland decides not to roster him.

RHP Kevin Kelly

PosPlayerAgeLevelIPKBBHBPK%BB%ERAFIPWHIP
FHPKevin Kelly24Double-A/Triple-A57.175121229.9%8.8%2.042.861.12

A lesser-known reliever in the Guardians farm system, Kelly has thrived on control and deception throughout his career. He put together a solid 2021 season at High-A Lake County. He continued that success at Double-a Akron in 2022. That success got him promoted to Triple-A Columbus. He hit some control problems once he got to Triple-A, but continued to miss bats despite not having elite stuff or throwing particularly hard. Kelly hits 94 with his fastball on a good day, and typically sits 90-92. He also has a deceptive slider, and he throws both pitches from a funky side arm slot that gives him the deception and gives the batter hard time picking up which pitch he’s throwing. Kelly does rely on his control and deception, and did have issues hitting batters at times in 2022, but he still had one of the best ERA as and FIP’s the Guardians farm system to go along with missing more bats than a pitcher with his stuff typically would. Kelly is also Rule 5 eligible this winter. 

RHP Davis Sharpe:

PosPlayerAgeLevelIPKBBK%BB%ERAFIPWHIP
RHPDavis Sharpe22Single-A/High-A71.1871229.9%8.8%2.023.160.91

Davis Sharpe was the Guardians 13th round pick in the 2021 draft out of Clemson as a two-way player who didn’t put up impressive numbers on the surface. He started 2022 in Low-a Lynchburg and worked his way up to High-A Lake County, finishing with an ERA around 2.00, a healthy strikeout rate, and showing good control. Sharpe has a fastball-slider combination and runs his fastball 92-93. He also has a somewhat deceptive arm angle that is near side arm 3/4 which aids the deception between his fastball and slider. 

RHP Cade Smith:

PosPlayerAgeLevelIPKBBK%BB%ERAFIPWHIP
RHCade Smith 23High-A/Double-A61.1993538.1%13.5%2.932.531.19

Smith was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2021 out of the University of Hawaii. He got into some games in 2021 between Low-A Lynchburg and High-A Lake County. In 2022 Smith took off as the closer in Lake County. He was promoted to Double-A Akron and assumed a back end relief role there. Smith finished the season with 13 saves and nearly struck out 100 batters in just over 60 Innings, with an ERA and FIP under 3.00. Smith operates in the 90-94 range with his fastball, and has a sweeping slider to go with it. He also comes from the side at a tough angle and has good extension thanks to long limbs. He may be an unheralded find by the Guardians as an undrafted free agent. Smith isn’t Rule 5 eligible until next season. 

2022 GBI Relief Prospect of the Year

LHP Tim Herrin

The choice this year came down to Herrin and Smith. Smith finished with two less strikeouts than Herrin, and in less innings. Despite both struggling with control at times, Smith did have a higher walk rate. He was also 23 and in Double-A, while Herrin is 25 and made it to Triple-A. There was a case to be made for both for the award, as Herrin has more high-octane stuff with velocity and being left handed certainly factors in. Smith operates up to the mid-90s and needs more deception, but his stuff still plays, as evidenced by the numbers. He went from being an undrafted free agent to a potential major league relief option. He’s now pitching in the AFL to get more experience, and is even getting married while he pitchers out there, so it has been quite the year for him. Both could impact Cleveland’s bullpen in 2023, first being Herrin given his roster status, although his Rule 5 status could see him land elsewhere. Velocity, especially from the left side, matters in the pen, as we have seen.

Honorable mention:

LHP Raymond Burgos – Age: 23; G: 37; ERA: 2.08; IP: 65; K: 67; BB: 22; HR: 2; K%: 25.6%; BB%: 8.4%; FIP: 2.98
RHP Zach Pettway – Age: 23; G: 14; ERA: 2.00; IP: 27; K: 38; BB: 8; K%: 34.5%; BB%: 7.3%; FIP: 2.51
LHP Andrew Misiaszek – Age: 24; G: 42; ERA: 2.04; IP: 61.2; K: 90; BB: 25; K%: 36.3%; BB%: 10.1%; FIP: 2.75
RHP Elvis Jerez – Age: 22; G: 34; ERA: 2.52; IP: 35.2; K: 47; BB: 22; K%: 30.3%; BB: 14.2%; FIP: 3.24; SV: 10
RHP Nick Mikolajchak – Age: 24; G: 47; ERA: 3.04; IP: 50.1; K: 50; BB: 29; K%: 26.3%; BB%: 13.7%; FIP: 4.02

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