Michael Bowden was a bit of a mirage last year.
Drafted with the 47th overall pick in 2005, Bowden hung around the Boston organization for 7 years, never really showing a whole lot in the majors but nearly always dominating the minor leagues. Michael would hang around the bottom of the BA Top 100 prospect lists from 2007 to 2009, but he would never really put it together at the Major League level. After a “failed” conversion to the bullpen, the Red Sox traded Bowden (along with Hunter Cervenka, a non-prospect) for Marlon Byrd, who promptly got busted for PED and was dead on arrival anyways.
Bowden put up a nice 2.95 ERA for the Cubs in 2012, but it was ephemeral; his FIP was 4.32 and his BABIP was only .250. Combined with the nebulous nature of reliever ERA, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to assume that Bowden was just lucky last year. His peripheral stats were in line with his career numbers, and it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of excess value here.
The Cubs decided after the 2012 season to stretch Bowden back into a starter. I understand the move from a depth standpoint, as a replacement-level starter is worth slightly more than a replacement-level reliever. Still just 25, Bowden has a chance to take step forward with his new organization, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Bowden has 3 primary offerings. His primary pitch is a fastball (55%) of the time, which he throws 91 mph on average. It has a below-average PITCHf/x grade, but I don’t read into primary pitch grades all that often, as a pitch like this is thrown generally for strikes (and is eminently more hittable). I’d say the offering is probably only slightly below average. Next up is an 83 mph slider (25%) that is his best pitch. It’s an above-average pitch, and hitters last year had a wOBA of .264 against the offering last year (.244 career). Rounding out his arsenal is a changeup (20%) that is thrown at 84 mph and is routinely rocked. Bowden will need to really refine an off-speed pitch if he wants to stick as a starter.
Bowden’s pitches don’t really fool anyone. Batters swing on pitches in the zone much more often than normal against Michael, and pitches out of the zone much less often. In both cases, batters make less contact than normal, though not by much. This is an interesting trend that isn’t very common; usually if batters consistently diagnose balls and strikes, they are going to make solid contact when they do choose to swing. For one reason or another, they just aren’t making the contact they should. This gives me hope that Bowden can develop into a higher-strikeout pitcher by inducing more swings out of the zone/less swings in the zone and maintaining his average contact numbers.
I don’t expect a lot out of Bowden in 2013 (or honestly, in the future). There’s probably some upside to be unlocked, and don’t forget that Theo knows the Boston system better than probably anyone on Earth. Bowden probably won’t be more than the 7th or 8th starter on the club in 2013, and he’s at medium risk of being waived if an intriguing option becomes available. If Bowden can work a little more out of the zone, he could be become an effective middle reliever or swingman. My guess is we might not see that in 2013.