Not a Rookie: Jair Jurrjens
Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens has been one of the best young pitchers in the National League the last two seasons. He's had some shoulder trouble this spring, but the most recent reports indicate he should be ready for regular action the first week of April. I was never super-wild about Jurrjens as a prospect. I liked him, but I thought he would need more development time than he received and thought his adjustment to the majors would be more difficult. Let's take a look at his background and see how he developed.
Jair Jurrjens was signed by the Tigers as an undrafted free agent out of Curacao in 2003. He made his pro debut that summer in the Gulf Coast League at age 17, posting a 20/3 K/BB in 28 innings with a 3.21 ERA and 33 hits allowed. I didn't put him in the 2004 book but would have rated him a Grade C prospect if I had, as a guy who was hittable but had sharp command and youth. He didn't make the 2004 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, either, so I don't feel bad about not being on top of him at that point.
Jurrjens returned to the Gulf Coast League to begin 2004, going 4-2, 2.27 with a 39/10 K/BB in 40 innings and 25 hits allowed. Promoted to Oneonta in the New York-Penn League, he struggled against better competition, with a 5.31 ERA and a 31/10 K/BB in 39 innings with 50 hits allowed. The less-than-impressive numbers at the higher level kept him out of my '05 book, but Baseball America was on him at that point, ranking him at Number 22 in the Tigers system and noting his projectability. His fastball improved from 87-89 in '03 to 90-92, and he made progress with his secondary pitches, though BA also projected him more as a number four or five starter than an ace.
Jurrjens pitched for Class A West Michigan in the Midwest League in 2005, going 12-6, 3.41 with a 108/36 K/BB in 143 innings, 132 hits allowed. His strikeout rate wasn't too good for the league context, but his K/BB was sharp. His velocity was erratic, ranging from 86 to 93 MPH, though he picked up a lot of grounders and made progress with his curveball and changeup. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2006 book, writing that he "looks like a sleeper to me." I expected a consolidation season in '06, but wrote that a breakthrough could come in 2007.
Jurrjens began 2006 with Lakeland in the Florida State League, going 5-9, 2.08 in 12 starts with a 59/10 K/BB in 74 innings, with 53 hits allowed. Promoted to Double-A Erie at mid-season, he adjusted well to the more advanced competition and went 4-3, 3.36 with a 53/21 K/BB in 67 innings, 71 hits allowed. His walk rate jumped up some (though it remained low overall). He did miss some time after being in a car accident, and there was some concern over a bout of shoulder soreness, but overall it was a successful season. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2007 book and mentioned that a larger breakthrough was still possible.
Returning to Double-A Erie for 2007, Jurrjens went 7-5, 3.20 with a 94/31 K/BB in 113 innings with 112 hits allowed. Promoted to Detroit, he went 3-1, 4.70 in seven starts, albeit with a weak 13/11 K/BB in 31 innings. The walks were fine, but I was concerned about the miniscule strikeout rate. He also missed two weeks of pitching time with a sore shoulder again. He was traded to Atlanta in the Edgar Renteria deal that fall. I gave him a Grade B in the 2008 book, writing that I liked him a lot, but felt he needed some Triple-A time and was worried about the shoulder. He also received a lot of pre-season hype heading into '08 (as is typical of young Braves starters) and I was concerned that people were overrating him.
As you know, Jurrjens was quite good as a rookie (13-10, 3.68, 139/70 K/BB in 188 innings, 3.59 FIP) and very effective last year as well (14-10, 2.60, 152/75 K/BB in 215 innings, 186 hits, 3.68 FIP). Note that his FIP last year was weaker than in '08 despite a much better ERA; looks like he had better defense/luck in '09. Jurrjens works now at 90-94 MPH, averaging 91 the last three seasons. He's developed a changeup, slider, and occasional cutter, but seldom throws the curveball he originally used in the lower minors.
Similar pitchers through age 23: Scott Sanderson, Andy Benes, Bill Gullickson, Mark Prior (uh, oh), Burt Hooten, Bump Hadley (veteran inning-eater from the 1920s/30s), Bob Welch, Kevin Appier, Sid Fernandez, and Fred Newman.All of those guys were very good pitchers, even excellent at times, though several of them had durability concerns, Prior and Newman (both burned out by age 26) most notably.
That is my main worry for Jurrjens going forward. This spring is the third season he's been bothered by shoulder issues, and while nothing has fallen apart yet, it is something to watch closely. If he does stay healthy, I like his chances to take a bigger step forward in the next year or two. If he can get the walk rate down, he could have a Cy Young-caliber season at some point.