Rancho Cucamonga, California —— The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Caleb Ferguson out of an Ohio high school in 2014 just weeks after he had Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. The left-handed pitcher ultimately opted to sign with the Dodgers instead of heading off to West Virginia University to play college ball, and after a first year full of rehab and a second year spent slowly gaining professional experience in the Arizona League, Ferguson started to hit the ground running last year in a partial season (ten starts) with Low-A Great Lakes.
Now in his first true full professional season, and now that he’s finally fully healthy and able to pitch a full slate in the pitching rotation, Caleb Ferguson is putting it all together and proving the Dodgers wise for plucking him out of high school and sticking with his path even through a serious injury. Entering Sunday night’s game—which Ferguson is slated to start against the Stockton Ports—the lefty has appeared 17 times (16 starts) this year with the High-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, and he is 5-4 with a 3.13 ERA over 77.2 innings pitched. He’s allowed 69 hits, 37 walks, and just five home runs in that span while striking out 77 batters. All that good work earned him an All-Star nod from the California League last month, and Ferguson’s last five starts heading into Sunday night have him 4-0 over 26.0 innings pitched, with only eight earned runs allowed on 27 hits and eight walks against 27 strikeouts.
Beyond the numbers, the Los Angeles Dodgers have themselves a sneaky-good fringe prospect in the 21-year-old Caleb Ferguson, who is perhaps most impressive with his ability to throw a good, hard breaking ball for strikes. A pretty standard three-pitch starter, Ferguson has pedestrian velocity—he’ll work 88-90 mph with a hard-running two-seam fastball that can give some trouble to lefties in particular—but it’s his curve that leave the lasting impression. Sitting 72-75 mph, the curve spins very tightly and breaks hard and late. Ferguson can command it very well, too, alternating between called strikes down in the zone early in the count and wipeout curveballs in the dirt once he gets ahead of hitters (lefties in particular). His changeup is a third look compared to Ferguson’s first two pitches but it’s doing enough right now with some tumble and a good change of speeds (80-81 mph) to keep righties off balance when he throws it down in the zone.
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The Los Angeles Dodgers have an embarrassment of riches as far as minor league prospects go, and Caleb Ferguson is a great example of that, if only because he’s not anywhere close to a top-30 prospects list right now with that organization. He’d likely rate mid-level on several other teams’ top-30 lists even within just the National League West alone, which is a testament to the Dodgers’ organizational depth and high-level talent that litters their minor league affiliates. Take nothing away from Ferguson, though; he’s an exciting young pitcher who, while unlikely to become a flashy frontline starter like some other Dodgers farmhands, still has a legitimate shot to get a big league look thanks to sheer pitchability.
Long term, as rapidly as his development has come relative to age, I think there’s a decent shot for Caleb Ferguson to get a long look as a back-end starter. He’ll almost certainly start well into the upper minors over the next year or two, and if he proves himself there, he may yet get a shot to do it in The Show. He lacks above-average velocity as a starter, though, and so his ceiling may be limited unless he can keep missing bats with the curveball and good sequencing as he progresses.
More realistically, I think he’s a bullpen option that should work his way into a low-leverage long relief role, or perhaps even a short-stint situational left-handed role, thanks to his great curveball feel. In short stints, and with another couple years of development and growth, Ferguson should see his stuff play up just a little bit. If he can work into the low-90s with that sharp curve to complement, his chances of throwing higher-leverage innings will only improve.
Above all, though, Caleb Ferguson represents all the good things that come from patience, both for him, and for the Los Angeles Dodgers. A late-round shot in the dark on draft day after a serious injury, a few lost seasons of rehab and slow, anonymous development, and all of a sudden, here he is, dominating in High-A as a 21-year-old and soon to raise his profile as he keeps climbing the minor league ladder. Though the lefty will almost certainly fall short of becoming that big impact frontline starter everybody hopes for, don’t let it cloud his exceptional perseverance if he soon reaches the big leagues throwing low-leverage innings; for a 38th round Tommy John survivor, that alone is a massive development win—and it’s all the better that Caleb Ferguson can throw the ball around a little bit to make things interesting.