Part of a 2022 draft class chock-full of four year college arms, UW Milwaukee product AJ Blubaugh has been a steady performer since his professional debut. He’s had some poor luck when it comes to run avoidance, but has shown solid strike throwing ability and an ability to miss bats that has allowed him to steadily advance up the ladder- eventually reaching Double-A late in the 2023 season, where he struck out 19 hitters in 14 and ⅓ innings down the stretch. He surrendered more hard contact than one would like, but showed solid fundamental skills and occasional moments of dominance.
Blubaugh has pitched in the hybrid starter role that most Astros farmhands occupy early in their career, throwing 4 innings per appearance on average if things go according to plan. While he is generally in the zone enough to offer some length, to my eye he projects fairly obviously to the bullpen in the long term- mostly due to the breadth of his arsenal. He can spin a solid breaking ball, but his fastball is way out in front of his other offerings in terms of raw stuff quality, and is always going to dominate his pitch mix.
Like most pitchers in the Astros’ organization, Blubaugh’s heater has an appealing movement profile, with rising, bat-missing action. This movement is the primary driver of his strong strikeout rate, but thus far it lacks the premium velo (he’s typically in the low-90s, occasionally touching a tad higher) to make it a truly dominant offering, which it needs to be to carry him to big league success since he won’t be able to lean heavily on spin against the highest level of competition. It’s likely that he, like most pitchers who shift to short relief work, could find another tick or two pitching in single-inning stints, and for this type of profile that can make all the difference. While I’d expect him to continue to make incremental improvements to the auxiliary aspects of his game, more velo is his best avenue for significant improvement going forward. Perhaps he can find it without his workload changing, but I’m not confident that happens based on his age and physicality.
The 23 year old righty is currently pitching for Mesa in the Arizona Fall League, where he has gotten somewhat sparing action but has performed well. Through three appearances totaling 7.0 IP, Blubaugh has struck out 9 batters against 3 walks, and allowed 3 runs on 8 hits, all of which have stayed in the yard. It’s not much of a sample to work with, but he’s facing arguably the best competition he’s ever seen and more than holding his own, which is always a welcome sight. With limited upper minors experience, I’d expect Blubaugh to return to Corpus Christi to begin 2023, but relief arms can move quickly if they find a groove. While he is unlikely to become a marquee name in the system at any point, he has shown more than enough potential to be a capable bullpen option, perhaps as soon as late 2024 or early 2025.