Farm fresh: Jharel Cotton’s second turnaround

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

By Cary Osborne

For the past three seasons, I’ve been fascinated by Jharel Cotton.

That began when Cotton was having a pedestrian first two months with High-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2014 — and then all of a sudden he became one of the most consistent and dominant pitchers in the system.

Cotton, a right-hander from the Virgin Islands, put himself on the prospect radar quicker than any Dodger minor-league pitcher I had followed in the previous five seasons.

I mean, he was nowhere in my thought process, or probably for a lot of other minor-league aficionados, and then all of a sudden — bang.

It started after a June 11, 2014 start against the Lancaster JetHawks, his brother Jamaine’s team at the time. Cotton imploded, giving up 10 earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. He had a game score of (pause for dramatic effect) one. It put his ERA at 7.07. Eight days later, he began his run. Over his next 13 starts, he had a 2.55 ERA and struck out 93 batters to 18 walks in 84 2/3 innings.

The 2016 season is shaping up to be Cotton’s 2014 mirror.

In his first 10 games for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers, he had a 6.67 ERA. After four starts, he was in the bullpen, and in six appearances (10 innings) there, he gave up 10 earned runs.

On May 23, he was back in the starting rotation, and since (five starts), he has a 2.57 ERA and has struck out 34 batters to nine walks in 28 innings.

In his last three starts, he has struck out seven of the nine batters he has faced in the first inning and hasn’t allowed a baserunner.

That recent quick burst is exciting, especially for a pitcher on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster who has experience pitching as a starter and a reliever.

Prior to the season, I asked Cotton what he saw himself as.

“I came through the system as a starter, and of course I’ve had a couple relief appearances,” he said. “But growing up through high school, college, I was always a starter. But whatever the Dodgers see fits well is what I’ll be.”

Whichever he is, being on the 40-man roster, he offers the Dodgers a potential versatile arm at the big-league level should injury or something else open a door the door for him this season.

Overall, he has a 4.68 ERA, and his 1.6 home runs per nine innings is the second highest of any Triple-A pitcher. But there are other stats that counter those numbers. Cotton is second in Triple-A with 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and his opponents batting average of .211 is sixth-lowest at the minor leagues’ highest level. He’s also tied for 12th with a 1.13 WHIP. Obviously, home runs are hurting him. Home runs are responsible for 18 of his 30 earned runs.

But in some ways, Cotton has been one of Triple-A’s most dominant pitchers, and thus he’s stayed on a track that he set in 2014 that could ultimately lead to Los Angeles.

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