Cody Buckel is a righthanded pitcher drafted by the Rangers out of high school in Simi Valley, California, in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. Although listed at B-R at 6'1", 170 lbs., Baseball America had Buckel listed at 6 feet even when he was draft-eligible. His short stature and slight build contributed to Buckel being ranked just #157 overall by Baseball America in the 2010 pre-draft rankings, despite a fastball that could touch 94 and what BA described as "an excellent array of secondary pitches."
The Rangers, who have targeted smaller pitchers like Robbie Ross and Robbie Erlin in the early rounds of late, weren't scared off by Buckel's lack of height, and grabbed him at #72 overall in 2010. Buckel signed for $590,000 -- a little over slot money -- and had a brief stint in the Arizona complex league in 2010, throwing 5 shutout innings in 4 games, striking out 9, walking 1 and giving up 2 hits and no runs.
Although most high school draftees at least start out their first full pro season in a complex league, the Rangers challenged Buckel, sending him to Hickory in the low-A South Atlantic League. Buckel responded to the challenge better than, I think, anyone could have reasonably expected. After allowing 2 runs in his debut appearance, a 2 inning relief outing that was his only appearance in April, Buckel rattled off monthly ERAs of 2.40, 2.16, 3.28, and 2.16, before finishing the year with a 5 inning, 1 run appearance in September.
For the year, Buckel had some eye-popping numbers, with 120 strikeouts in 96.2 innings, walking just 27 and hitting only one batter on the year, whlie allowing 7 home runs. Although Buckel didn't get enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, his 2.61 ERA would have been good for third in the Sally League, had he met the innings requirements, and his strong August resulted in his being named the Rangers' minor league pitcher of the month for August. Baseball America was impressed enough with Buckel's 2011 to rank him the #19 prospect in the South Atlantic League, and the #7 prospect in a deep Ranger system (and since BA included Yu Darvish in the rankings, the essentially had Buckel #6 overall).
In 2012, Buckel continued to build on the success he had in 2011. Starting the season with Myrtle Beach in the high-A Carolina League, Buckel struck out 91 batters in 75.2 innings while walking 25 and allowing just 2 homers, resulting in an incredible 1.31 ERA. In 13 starts spanning 75.2 innings, Buckel allowed just 12 runs with Myrtle Beach. This performance earned him a mid-season promotion, and Buckel held his own as a 20 year old in the AA Texas League, putting up a 3.78 ERA in 69 innings for Frisco, striking out 8.9 batters per 9, walking 3.0 per nine and allowing 7 homers. Baseball America ended up ranking Buckel 5th in their Carolina League top 20 prospect list, and 14th in the Texas League top 20 prospect list.
Buckel is another guys whose rankings right now seem all over the map. While the LSB community ranked Buckel #5 overall, John Sickels ranked him 4th. Jason Cole, however, had him ranked 12th in the Ranger system – behind, among others, Justin Grimm – and Jamey Newberg had him ranked 9th. Baseball America slotted Buckel in at #8, although they included Leonys Martin in their rankings, which the LSB community rankings and Newberg didn’t do. MLB.com had Buckel ranked #87 on their top 100 list – the #4 ranked Ranger prospect overall, and the #1 Ranger pitching prospect. Scout.com, meanwhile, did not include Buckel in their top 100 list. Keith Law ranked Buckel #90 on his top 100 list, and the #3 ranked Ranger prospect overall.
I struggle to figure out where Buckel should slot in a strong, deep Ranger system. I wrote last year that he is reminiscent Joe Wieland, the righty who was sent to San Diego as part of the Mike Adams trade, in that he doesn't have overpowering stuff, but has quality secondary pitches and knows how to pitch. The problem is, there's a danger in getting too excited about how well "pitchability" guys do in the lower minors, particularly pitchers who rely on their offspeed stuff. Hitters at those levels are so raw, and so seldom see pitchers with decent secondary pitches, that they can often be overmatched by pitchers who don't have the stuff to succeed at the upper levels. Buckel dominated against high-A hitters, but was somewhat exposed when he got to AA. Buckel is young, but his repertoire is fairly mature, which suggests that he has less growth potential than some other pitchers, and being young for his level is less of an advantage as it is for someone like Martin Perez.
2013 should be a big year for Buckel. He has been invited to the major league camp for spring training and is reportedly one of eight pitchers who will be competing for the 5th starter job out of training camp. Last season, I wrote that I expected Buckel to start the season at Myrtle Beach, but that I wouldn’t be surprised by a mid-season promotion to Frisco, despite the fact that he wouldn’t turn 20 until June. That’s what ended up happening, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see something similar happen in 2013, with Buckel starting the year at Frisco and then getting a mid-season promotion to Round Rock. However, I think the AAA PCL is going to be where we’re really going to see Buckel tested, and where we’ll get a better handle on if his stuff will be able to play at the higher levels, or if he’s a command pitcher who will end up topping off at AAA with some spot duty in the majors.
What sort of ceiling does Buckel have? The consensus seems to be that his future depends in large part on his durability -- his lack of size has led to concerns that he can't hold up to a starter's role, and that he might be better suited to the bullpen. That said, his four-pitch repertoire -- along with the fastball, he throws a changeup that has been called a plus pitch, a big breaking curve, and a cutter -- makes him seem like a better fit as a starter. Buckel garners praise for his makeup, intelligence, work ethic and feel for pitching, and while he doesn't seem to be someone who has a ton of upside, if things break right for him, he could end up as a #3 starter.