If you’re reading the headline and thinking, “I know that name, how do I know that name?” then let me help you out. Right-handed pitcher Phil Bickford was long thought as one of the most dynamic pitching prospects in all of baseball. However, like so many pitching prospects before him, a combination of injuries, ineffectiveness and suspensions (okay, that one is unique) have completely derailed his path to big league superstardom.
Bickford has been completely banished from the minds of nearly all baseball fans, writers and reporters. He was not featured on any Brewers prospect lists (except ours where he was No. 44) and is rarely discussed by the rest of the media as well.
So why am I writing about him, and why do I think he could still hold fantasy relevance? First, a little background:
Bickford was originally selected tenth overall by the Blue Jays in 2013 out of Oaks Christian High School. He chose not to sign and instead spent one season at Big West powerhouse Cal-State Fullerton, before leaving and spending the next season at the College of Southern Nevada, where he was drafted 18th overall by the Giants in 2015.
Bickford threw 22.1 innings in rookie ball after getting selected, posting a 32/6 K/BB ratio and a 2.01 ERA. That was enough to land him at No. 3 overall in the Giants farm system, behind Tyler Beede and Christian Arroyo (oof).
Bickford really took off in 2016, making 17 starts (11 at A-ball and 6 at High-A) posting a 2.71 ERA and a 105/27 K/BB ratio in 93 innings. He was then shipped, along with catcher Andrew Susac, to the Brewers in exchange for left-hander Will Smith.
He went 2-1 with a 3.67 ERA and a 10.0 K/9 down the stretch with Milwaukee, but then the trouble started. Bickford was suspended for 50-games following a second positive test for a drug of abuse. At the time he was one of Milwaukee’s highest rated prospects. He served his 50-games, but a broken hand limited to just 17 innings at rookie ball, where he posted a 2.01 ERA but a not-so-great 16/10 K/BB ratio.
2018 rolled around, and Bickford, who at that time was barely a top-30 prospect in the organization, suffered more injuries which limited him to just 34.2 innings, all spent at High-A Carolina.
The move to the bullpen
Here is where I want to focus, as Milwaukee finally made the decision many had been clamoring for: they moved Bickford to the bullpen. Scouting reports all pegged Bickford as a future late-inning reliever, thanks to a dynamic sinking fastball that he runs up to 98 miles per hour, but a complete lack for a changeup feel and limited command. His slider has flashed plus in the past, and many believe a move to a late inning role will allow that pitch to play up in conjunction with his heavy fastball.
It’s easy to look at Bickford’s 4.67 ERA from last year and assume it’s time to stick a fork in him, but there’s more to the story. For starters, he held a 3.93 FIP, and his 10.64 K/9 is what you would hope for from a starter-turned-reliever. Plus, Bickford was just 23-years-old last season, and while it feels like he has been around forever there is definitely a chance he finds his way into a big league bullpen, health withstanding.
The latest on Bickford is that he is throwing without any limitations this spring. While he has yet to appear in a Spring Training game, that is a fantastic sign that he could, finally, start the season healthy.
I’ve been told #Brewers prospects LHP Nathan Kirby and RHP Phil Bickford are full go this spring with no restrictions. RHP Devin Williams (Tommy John) is throwing off a flattened mound, and RHP Daniel Missaki (second Tommy John) is nearing a return as well.
— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) February 21, 2018
So what does this mean for those of you in dynasty leagues? Well, most of you have probably already dumped Bickford by now, unless your league is outrageously deep, in which case, kudos. His future as a starter is all but vanished, but I still believe there is a non-zero chance he eventually becomes a closer, or at least a late-inning, high strikeout reliever, which holds fantasy value.
Milwaukee has a very stacked bullpen at the moment, so expecting him to come into a high-leverage role next season, when he’s never even thrown above Double-A, is foolish. But I believe 2020 could be a big year for Bickford, whether he is in Milwaukee’s bullpen or ends up somewhere else. That fastball/slider combination is still nasty enough to make big league hitters miss, and I wouldn’t hate to stash him in deeper formats, at least to see how he looks to start out the season.
— Brewers Farm (@BrewersFarm) June 8, 2018