There's something about ranking relief pitchers that just feels like a waste of time. It's not that these players won't contribute, it's more that there are so few players that are true relief pitchers. Most relief pitchers are failed starters and when a pitcher is in the minors he is still in the process of being an unsuccessful starter before becoming a successful reliever.
Still, we'll give it a go. The important stats for relief pitcher are pretty simple, low WHIP, high strikeouts and few home runs. Before we get started here's a look back at the hitters:
1. Santo Manzanillo - The first concern with Manzanillo is that he get healthy, after being in a car accident in the offseason. Depending on when Manzanillo can start pitching again the hope will be that he can pick up where he left off in 2011. Sporting a high velocity fastball (upper 90s), Manzanillo 62 batters in 61.2 innings pitched. He had a WHIP of 1.14. His numbers were dominant with Brevard County, to the tune of a 1.52 ERA. Getting back and healthy is most important.
2. Daniel Meadows - I am rooting for Meadows, if only because he was drafted in the 49th round of the draft. Splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A, Meadows pitched 77.1 innings and had a 2.68 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He struck out 74 batters and only walked 23. It's likely he starts the year with Nashville but he will be high on the list when injuries or ineffectiveness open up spots on the major league roster.
3. Robert Hinton - This is where ranking relievers really gets difficult. Getting the nod at the third spot is Hinton, based on a strong 2011 year at double-A. In 54 innings with Huntsville he struck out 58 batters and walked only 19 with a sparkling 1.67 ERA. Hinton has yet to see that success translate to Triple-A however, in 29.1 career innings at the minor's highest level he has an ERA close to six (5.83).
UPDATE: I knew I was going to get burned by one of these rankings and Hinton it is. Hinton was a minor league free agent this offseason and elected to sign with Baltimore. Not overly surprising that the organization would pass on a 27-year-old reliever that had been unable to make the transition from Double-A to Triple-A (so far).
In his place I offer up Casey Medlen, a 37th round draft pick a year ago. Medlen saw time with rookie Helena and Wisconsin, striking out 44 in 34.2 innings and sporting a 1.07 WHIP. His impressive 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings pitched ratio catches the eye, as does the fact that he walked only 11 batters in his first professional season.
4. Rob Wooten - After missing 2010 with an arm injury, Wooten bounced back with a solid year split between High-A Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville. For the season he had a 1.16 WHIP and 3.09 ERA. Wooten doesn't throw overly hard but he has been a closer for most of his minor league career. He'll be 26 at the start of 2012 and should begin the season at Nashville.
5. Eric Marzec - On the strength of his strikeout numbers and a sharp ERA I'm going with Marzec at the number five spot. Marzec has pitched 103 innings and struck out 111 batters. His WHIP that same amount of time is 1.12. I suppose that's not such a bad number either. The Brewers saw fit to give him a brief look with Triple-A Nashville last season and there's no reason to think he'll start any lower than Double-A in 2012.
Final Thoughts - The main purpose of making a relief pitchers list was to have a group for Manzanillo. After him, there are a whole bunch of guys that could be considered relief prospects. Names like Casey Medlen, Maverick Lasker, Jonathan Pokorny or Donovan Hand all come to hand. Basically, there is no John Axford coming up in the wings but there are a bunch of guys with a chance at helping the major league roster.