By: Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
Ken Giles, Pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies
2014 season (Minors): 24 G, 12 SV, 28.1 IP, 1.91 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 2 W, 38 SO, 13 BB
2014 season (Majors): 44 G, 1 SV, 45.2 IP, 1.18 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 3 W, 64 SO, 11 BB
When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million deal before the 2012 season, the club didn’t think it would be entering the final year of his contract coming off back-to-back 73-win seasons. It hasn’t been Papelbon’s fault, as he has saved 106 games with a 2.45 ERA in three years with the Phils.
Despite the overall strong numbers, the fans haven’t exactly been enamored with Papelbon during his time in Philly and the overall feeling is that the closer’s time with the Phillies has run its course and it’s time for the two to part ways. That’s easier said than done, however, as teams aren’t exactly running to acquire a 34-year-old closer owed $13 million this year with a vesting option for another $13 million in 2016 if he finishes 48 games this year. He has a partial no-trade clause, and would likely require any teams on his no-trade list to guarantee his 2016 option before approving a move. A trade is more likely to come midseason, if at all, but the Phillies can feel confident that when the time comes, Ken Giles is waiting in the wings.
Giles was inconsistent in the Minor Leagues, but oblique issues in 2013 were a major contributor to his struggles that last. Last season it all clicked and he became a dominant force. The Phillies wasted no time taking advantage of Giles’ sudden development and called him up in June. After allowing an earned run in his first appearance, he struck out 29 without allowing a run in his following 20 1/3 innings. He finished the year averaging a ridiculous 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings.
The 24-year-old Giles is primarily a two-pitch, swing-and-miss pitcher, boasting a four-seam fastball that can reach triple digits and averaged just over 97 mph last season, according to Pitchf/x data, and a plus-slider which helped contribute to his incredible 15.7 swinging-strike percentage. Among relievers who pitched at least 40 innings in 2014, Giles ranked seventh in SwStr% behind the likes of Aroldis Chapman (who led the league with a 20 SwStr%), Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen. Batters made contact at just a 68-percent rate off Giles last season, which was 10th among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched. If Giles could sustain that over a full season, and there’s no indication that he can’t as he showed no signs of slowing down in his first year, he would be among the best relievers in the game and a clear closer candidate.
Many young, hard throwers are susceptible to the long ball and to control issues — but that may not be the case with Giles. Not only did he allow just one home run all of last year (he didn’t allow any between Double-A and Triple-A). Giles also had an impressive 5.82 K/BB ratio while walking 11 in 45 2/3 innings. While you’d like to see a few less walks, he’s not erratic by any means.
Giles’ role relies on Papelbon, but either way, he is locked in to the setup role for the time being and could take over as closer at any moment this season if Papelbon were to be traded or get hurt, or even if he were to struggle. The rookie year was fantastic, as he finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting — even more impressive as a middle reliever. But that may have only been the beginning of the career of the next great closer in baseball.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.