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Jharel Cotton: future reliever or starter?

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2016 should see the big league arrival of the Los Angeles Dodgers top ten prospect Jharel Cotton. Will it be out of the pen or in the rotation?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since being drafted in 2011, Jharel Cotton is seemingly a pitcher searching for a role. Now that he appears to be on the brink of making his big league debut, there is still a little uncertainty in how he can be most effective.

The jury is still out: is Jharel Cotton a future reliever or can he become that starter the Los Angeles Dodgers had once hoped for?

Cotton was drafted in the 20th round out of East Carolina, selected 626th overall in that 2011 MLB Draft by the Dodgers. Physically, he doesn’t look like your typical starting pitcher, standing at 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds, but the 24-year old righty has seen his fair share of success during his minor league career.

He has been used in and out of the bullpen for the bulk of his career, showing success and struggles in both the rotation and relief. 2014 — his second full season — saw him primarily used as a starter for Rancho Cucamonga in the hard hitting California League.

He made 20 starts in 25 appearances, and while his ERA wasn’t pretty at 4.05, the rest of his peripherals weren’t that bad. He struck out 138 (9.81 per nine) while walking just 34 (a career best 2.42 per nine). He allowed less than a hit an inning for a 1.16 WHIP, something Cotton has always been able to keep on the low side. He did fall victim to the long ball, surrendering 18 home runs, but that isn’t always that uncommon for a young pitchers first go in the Cali League.

Last season would see Cotton jockey between the bullpen and rotation pretty evenly. He was strong at his first stop in Tulsa as he excelled against Double-A hitting for some of the best numbers in his career. Cotton made 11 appearances, eight of which were starts, posting a 2.30 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP. He struck out 71 over 62.2 while walking 21.

He was promoted to Oklahoma City amidst the Los Angeles Dodgers end run and was moved to the bullpen, one would assume being prepped for a big league promotion to help alleviate their bullpen’s arms heading into the playoffs. Whether the Dodgers simply wanted to wait, or it was the result of his ensuing poor performance, Cotton’s day in LA never came. Opponents hit .321 in his first go in the PCL, allowing over one hit an inning and four runs over just 7.1 innings pitched.

Cotton is a different pitcher in and out of the bullpen. As John Sickels pointed out in his 2016 Prospect Guide, Cotton’s fastball is in the upper 80s when he is starting, but gets up to the mid-90s when he throws less out of the bullpen. He has a plus-changeup he uses as an out pitch, but his other two secondary pitches — a cutter and a curve ball — are still below average.

This season has been yet another roller coaster for Cotton. Back in the PCL, he started the season in the rotation, his first four starts being anything but consistent. He allowed one run, seven runs, zero runs and four runs in his four starts. Cotton was then moved to the bullpen where he pitched well until a six-run outing over two innings in which he blew his first save opportunity of the season. Cotton was moved back to the rotation after that meltdown, and you can argue that he has looked the best he has in quite some time, possibly his career.

His last three starts have seen him go 16 innings, allowing just five runs on six hits. He’s struck out 20 and walked just five, lowering his season WHIP from 1.42 to 1.16 over the process. He’s landing about 66-percent of his pitches for strikes, which is good, but could use some improvement especially without overpowering stuff at his disposal.

Check out his composure and big strike out with bases loaded:

So where does Cotton fit in to the Dodgers future plans? Most scouts will tell you that he has a high-impact delivery and because of that effort there are always injury concerns. Does limiting him to a bullpen role preserve his arm? Add in the fact that at the age of 24 he still only has command of two pitches with two other inconsistent, middling pitches at his disposal and it seems as if he is destined for the bullpen.

However, Cotton still has a ceiling of a middle of the rotation arm, especially with his strong showing over his past three starts. He uses his fastball and change up very well, fooling hitters up and down the zone, so his seldom used curve and cutter can still be effective with improved command.

Julio Urias is struggling. Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu are injury-prone. Scott Kazmir is old and could be elite or fall apart at any given second and Kenta Maeda still faces uncertainty in how long he will last in his first big league season. There is no question that there is going to be an opportunity for Cotton in 2016. The only question that there is is where it will come, in the rotation or bullpen?