Way back in 2015, the Detroit Tigers selected Texas prep right-hander Beau Burrows with the 22nd overall pick in former GM Dave Dombrowski’s last draft with the organization. While that feels like a lifetime ago, Burrows is still just 24 years old. In prospect terms, that’s not particularly old for a pitcher as long as they’re continuing to develop, but Burrows hit a wall along the way and has yet to break through.
After briefly debuting in the major leagues in a relief role in 2020, Burrows is now drifting into that no man’s land between prospect and depth arm, and his role going forward is unclear. According to manager A.J. Hinch, he’ll get the opportunity in spring camp to stretch out with an eye toward returning to a starting role, presumably as a depth starter in Toledo. But without a long awaited leap in development toward that role in 2021, Burrows may be little more than a decent middle relief option going forward. As a result, he’s just barely hanging onto our top 30 list this year.
Burrows hails from Weatherford, Texas, and trained at the Texas Baseball Ranch as a high school player. He was pretty close to 19 years old at the time he was drafted, and so on the older side for his class as a prep pick. As Baseball America wrote when he was drafted, there were always some questions about his actual height and the projectability of his frame, as well as his throwing mechanics.
When he was drafted, Burrows was well known on the high school circuit and was comfortably sitting 93-94 mph in starts, while topping out at 98 mph. He already had a quality curveball going as well. There were concerns about the tilt in his delivery and minimal projection left in his frame, but he was an advanced prep prospect with velocity flashing a major league quality breaking ball at his best. Unfortunately, the concerns have been validated in recent years as he’s struggled to improve and dealt with several minor arm and shoulder issues along the way.
His initial full season effort in 2016 went well for the Class-A West Michigan Whitecaps. The strikeout touch was a little lacking, but Burrows showed himself as the advanced pitching prospect he was by pounding the zone aggressively and rarely was hit hard at all. The jumps to Advanced-A and then Double-A in 2017 also went well, but as hitters caught up to his precocious stuff, Burrows was unable to show enough improvement in stuff or command to dominate, and that largely carried into 2018 as well.
Burrows developed an fringy slider along the way, and the changeup will flash above average but remains inconsistent. The curveball didn’t really make notable progress. The Tigers were able to clean his delivery up somewhat, reducing the rock and tilt motion that required perfect timing to spot his pitches, but overall, by the end of the 2018 season he appeared to be stalling out in terms of development.
The 2019 season didn’t help at all, as Burrows battled shoulder and bicep issues, along with an oblique strain, and was hit pretty hard in his first tour of the Triple-A level. He appeared in five games for the Tigers in 2020 and it was more of the same. A solid fourseam fastball with mediocre secondaries and command did little to offer hope for the future.
Burrows’ fourseam fastball is still a quality pitch. He gets above average spin on it with excellent efficiency, and as a result the pitch has above average movement both vertically and horizontally. He averaged 93.2 mph in 2020, which would be plenty if he was a starter with good secondary pitches. As a potential two-pitch relief prospect now, that’s less appealing. Still, the fastball isn’t really the issue.
The slider appears to benefit from some seam-shifted movement and it’s possible that a tune-up with Chris Fetter could pay some dividends. Still, he continues to lack a dependable out pitch. At times, the slider and changeup have looked to have some potential development left, and that’s where much of Burrows’ hopes will be pinned this season. If he could tweak one of them into a more effective offering, a future as a backend starter or setup level reliever still isn’t out of the question.
Apart from the mediocre quality of his secondary offerings, Burrows just hasn’t been able to dial in consistent command that would let him unlock his potential. His delivery is still inconsistent and while they’ve made some adjustments over the years to keep his shoulders more level and his body in sync, we still haven’t seen him dialed in for quite some time.
Overall, Burrows has a lot of high velocity mileage on his arm due to his precocious high school career. There has been a lot of discussion this offseason about the short 2020 season’s potential negative impact on arm health, but perhaps the reverse may be true for a pitcher like Burrows. The nagging injuries he dealt with in 2019, the workload and velocity he handled as a teenager, it all seemed to be catching up with him the past two seasons. It’s possible that a lot of time off last year might have been the best thing for him.
When a pitching prospect stalls out for a couple of years, without major elbow or shoulder surgery to account for it, the clock starts ticking louder and louder on their development timetable. Things are even trickier for Burrows as his profile has him in a gray area between starter and reliever without fitting particularly well into either role. If there’s ever going to be another developmental step taken, now is the time, as this season may be his last chance to hold a 40-man roster spot as the talent level around him continues to improve.
Projected 2021 team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Burrows 2021 role will be determined in the coming weeks as the new coaching staff gets a chance to work with, and evaluate him, in person. If Burrows is healthy and throwing well, look for him to return to starting at the Triple-A level to provide some much needed depth beyond the Tigers big three pitching prospects. If they decide it’s time to move to relief full-time, he’ll have some time in Toledo to work on the adjustment, but needs a good showing to hold a 40-man roster spot through next offseason.