Friday, June 21, 2013

Brandon Cumpton: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Brandon Cumpton, 24, is one of those neat little stories that pops up during the course of a season. Called up to make his MLB debut just four days after Gerrit Cole, the righty kinda got lost in the media backwash, but he did a great job of keeping the Pirates afloat while their primary pitching staff was splashing in a whirlpool. And if you think not, look at these two lines:

Cumpton - 2 GS, 0-0, 3.60 ERA, 10.1 IP, 4 ER, 12 H, 1.400 WHIP, 7K
Cole - 2 GS, 2-0, 3.75 ERA, 12 IP, 5 ER, 14 H, 1.167 WHIP, 3K

We'd say he's held his own so far, even if their future tracks are destined to lead in different directions.

He was a pretty hot prospect from his teen days. Cumpton won Georgia state titles at Greenbrier HS as a pitcher/3B in 2006-07, (career 31-3/1.01 ERA and .415 with 10 HR/106 RBI) and was recognized as a Louisville Slugger High School All-America. The one thing he didn't get was drafted, but he did earn a ride to ACC powerhouse, Georgia Tech.

Things didn't exactly take off during his Yellowjacket career. He did go 9-3 as a junior, but in his last two seasons, his combined ERA was over five and he had a rough go of it in the regionals. Still, the Bucs saw unrealized upside, and picked Cumpton in the ninth round (267th overall pick) of 2010 draft, grabbing him before the White Sox, a club that also showed a strong interest in the RHP.

It took until August to reel him in for $124K - he still had some leverage as a junior, at least enough to bring in a six figure bonus. He was sent to State College, where he tossed a few innings to get his feet wet in the pros.

He started off the 2011 season in Low Class A West Virginia, and got clocked in his first few starts. After a visit to the pen, he returned to the rotation with a newfound dedication to using both sides of the plate, and it turned his season around. After righting his ship and going 7-4, he was promoted to High A Bradenton in mid season.

Cumpton did OK there, going 3-3/3.66 ERA, and got some notice. His fastball was sitting in the low nineties consistently and he tossed 133-1/3 innings, a fairly heavy workload for a lower level pitcher. Heck, he even led the organization (actually, he was tied with Sean Gallagher) in HBPs, bopping 15 batters in his zeal to pound the inside half of the dish, showing pretty good control otherwise. Baseball America ranked him as the Bucs #28 prospect after the season.

2012 saw him open in Class AA Altoona, where he continued his workhorse ways. Cumpton went 12-11/3.84 ERA, working 152-1/3. The downside was his K rate, which was under six per nine innings, and that stat usually serves as a talent indicator in the upper levels.

But on the plus side, he was putting up a nice groundball rate (3.65 to 1), something the Pirate FO has made a point of emphasis. Among Buc farm hands, he was first in innings pitched and second in wins. In the Arizona Fall League, he had a 2.57 ERA in 11 outings from the bullpen. Baseball America jumped him a couple of spots to #25 going into this season.

He started at Altoona in 2013 and was called up to Indy early in the season when Phil Irwin was promoted to the Pirates as a matter of necessity. Cumpton got to stay in AAA as Irwin went on the DL, and did well with the Tribe. His line was 4-4/3.31, with seven K & two walks/nine innings and a strong 3:1 ground-to-fly-ball ratio.

When AJ Burnett joined the injury parade and went on the disabled list, Cumpton got the call to come to Pittsburgh. He didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement (Clint Hurdle noted it was Brandon's day in the rotation and that Andy Oliver couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with a baseball, both big parts in the decision-making process) and even Cumpton admitted he was taken by surprise. He wasn't on the 40-man, but the Bucs easily cleared room by cutting ties with Mike Zagurski.

He stepped on the rubber to oppose Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and thus became the first member of the 2010 Pirate draft class to reach the show. At first Cumpton looked like the Cy Young guy, striking out the side in his first MLB inning and claiming five K in his first two frames. Then the order batted around a second time, he stayed upstairs a little too much, and his day was cut short when he left with an out in the sixth. Still, he was charged with just three earned runs, and the Buc D wasn't at its most stellar behind him.

It showed the coaches enough that they decided to give him another start (which was not a given when he came up), this time against Homer Bailey. Cumpton was up to the task, leaving a 2-2 game to the bullpen after five frames. The youngster was fairly poised in his two outings, tossing 103 strikes out of his 166 pitches (62%) with 53% of his outs picked off the ground. He did a solid job at sticking his finger in the dike, but may soon be on his way back to Indy. The Bucs have a slew of off days ahead, and Jeanmar Gomez is almost ready to return, so his cameo is about to wrap. But it was a fruitful audition, we think.

His fastball was said to sit at 92 when he was called up, and that's about where it sat in Pittsburgh. He also throws a sinker, slider, and a show-me change. He has a couple of paths ahead of him.

Cumpton has been an inning-eater in the minors, and there's always a place at the back end of the staff for a guy that can go deep and keep a game in hand. With his low K rate, a back-ender is as far as he'll go as a starter. But that spot has value.

He's been reported to hit the mid-nineties in bursts from the bullpen, and that puts him in the Jared Hughes-Tony Watson-Vin Mazzaro mold of fastball/sinker/slider guys who were converted from starters to multi-inning bridge relievers, and there's value in that role, too.

Either way, Brandon Cumpton has made a good first impression. And if he's what the second or third tier of pitching talent in the Pirate system is like, the organization is in pretty good shape.

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