WTNYJune 21, 2005
Try of Relief
By Bryan Smith

Editor's Note: If you came over today eagerly anticipating Rich's take on Jered Weaver's debut, he will have that up tomorrow. Expect plenty of commentary and "I told you so"s of the ex-Dirtbag's 3-inning, one run, four strikeout performance.

I must admit a soft spot. An inherant bias that, all too often, leads me to overrate certain prospects. The group, which adds many names annually, often includes players that become my favorites to follow in the minors.

Before the 2004 season, in what was my first publicized prospect list, Bobby Jenks was ranked as baseball's 31st prospect. Conversely, Jenks did not make the Baseball America list. This past January, I had Jose Capellan and Jonathan Broxton ranked 20th and 74th, respectively, against BA having them in the 25th and unranked spots. Ambiorix Burgos was on my breakout list before the year, when few others could get over his 75 walk season.

When you put these players side-by-side, it isn't surprising to find similar skillsets. All are rather large humans that are blessed with a hard and moving fastball, but cursed with poor control and a limited repertoire. Their fates were predictable for about as long as they have been noticed, as each has had his fair share of scouting reports reading, "possible forthcoming move to relief."

This is why I was not surprised when, in the course of the same week, Capellan and Broxton's fates were both altered. The writing had been on the wall, especially for the Brewer, who has had his second pitch (curveball) long criticized. He shined in the minors and even the Futures Game, after which I wrote, "Capellan threw his fastball from 95-98, using it on thirteen of his fifteen total pitches. His curve was rather unimpressive, and though this might depress Braves' fans, Capellan reminded me of a younger Kyle Farnsworth." An inauspicious Major League debut ensued (11.25 ERA in 8IP), when again, the Braves couldn't stop him from using that fastball too much.

When the Brewers acquired Capellan for closer Danny Kolb, I wondered if Doug Melvin got the best reliever. Another Armando Benitez, maybe, and one with a 'heavier' heater at that. But Milwaukee thought to leave him in the rotation a little longer, even after a Spring Training when Chad Moeller said, "He just needs a second pitch that he can throw consistently for a strike. He was pretty much a one-pitch pitcher today." After 12 decent-at-best starts in the International League, Capellan's time bomb went off.

As for Broxton, he faced a disadvantage that Capellan did not: organizational depth. With the Dodgers flush in starting pitching prospect, and Broxton not separating himself from the pack, a move could be afforded. The Bull has a big fastball too, and better yet, a good breaking ball on top of that. Put it together and what do you got? A reliever.

Adding fuel to the fire, Broxton's velocity increased in short stints, reportedly from 92-93 to 95-97. This is a nearly impossible happening to see coming, rather just an answer to a farm director's prayers. Who would have known that Francisco Rodriguez would take off when dropping his pitch count? Or to an even larger extent, Eric Gagne, the quintessential starter-turned-reliever story?

While even the Dodgers may not have seen Gagne coming, you can bet Dan Evans is still thanking his lucky stars the Blue Jays asked for Luke Prokopec in the Paul Quantrill trade. What Los Angeles did see, however, is the similarities between Gagne and Broxton when they were still starting at Vero Beach:

Name	ERA	H/9	K/9	W/9
EG	3.74	7.60	9.28	3.09
JB	3.23	7.71	10.10	3.02

The jury is still out on Capellan and Broxton, who have been told the move to relief will be a temporary one. But you can bet more outings like the two-inning, four strikeout performance Capellan had on 6/16 will gradually sell Melvin and DePodesta on a full-time move. And, of course, they might already by sold on it. Maybe the story of Chris Ray was enough to do that. Or maybe it was the early results of Kansas City's patchwork bullpen, or Jenks' newfound success. Whatever it was, if you ask me, these moves are far from temporary.

Ray won't be doing anything but relief from here on out, especially not after what the Orioles have seen. Once a marginal starting pitching prospect with a 3.65 ERA in 2004, short stints have helped the ex-Tar Heel jump over the likes of John Maine and Adam Loewen on the organizational ladder. In twenty-seven games in the Eastern League, Ray had a 1.10 ERA and a 37/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has since been called up to Baltimore, where he is showing an arsenal that principally includes a 93-97 mph fastball and hard, 80 mph slider.

Where Ray should quickly become B.J. Ryan's set-up man, his rapid ascent pales in comparison to Ambiorix Burgos. Despite a 5.05 BB/9 in the Midwest League least year, Burgos still managed a 4.38 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 133.2 innings. The big league stuff was there, so the Royals thought to start him in the bullpen at AA this year. With huge problems and a successful start (17K in 8IP) in the Texas League, Burgos was called up April 27.

Since then, Ambiorix has grabbed the Royals closer role. The results have been mixed -- trial by fire for sure -- but Kansas City must be enthused with his progress. They must also be excited that Burgos is joined at the back end of the bullpen with 2004 high-A pitchers Andy Sisco and Leo Nunez. 6-9 Sisco, the Royals Rule 5 steal, has thoroughly bounced back from a 2004 riddled with lost velocity and inconsistency. Nunez, who I once compared to Juan Cruz, has proven to be another heist since being acquired for 118 year old Benito Santiago.

While those are the early success stories, it fails to recognize the guys still honing the craft in the minors. I have already mentioned Bobby Jenks, who is now a long way from where he once was, being compared to Bartolo Colon and profiling to be his future teammate. Instead, arm and mental troubles led to his release from the Angels, where he was subsequently claimed by the White Sox. His new organization gave him the AA closer job at the beginning of the season, and are slowly prospering from their claim. In 33.2 innings this year, Jenks has struck out 40, allowed just one home run, and has an ERA that stands at 2.67.

The other two players I want to talk about are Colt Griffin and Manny Delcarman. Griffin was the Royals first round pick in 2001, following a high school season in which he hit 100 mph on the radar gun. He started all but four of his first 61 games, when Colt's ERA was 5.03. The Royals are now attempting to convert his stuff to the bullpen, though he isn't progressing as quickly as others in the KC system. Delcarman had to move because of system depth, and his results have been mixed. A few mixed-in bullpen blow-ups have left Manny's ERA at 4.11, but you can bet Theo Epstein is a lot more pleased with his 42 strikeouts in just over thirty innings.

Give a pitcher some big velocity, and maybe even a solid secondary offering, and no matter the control they have, a chance exists. It's akin to a catcher with fantastic catch-and-throw skills, who at the very least, will ened up as a back-up Major League catcher. Minor leaguers with questionable stuff, almost no matter how good their control is, do not have the luxury of leaning back into a relief role. No matter who is on the horizon of bullpen switches (Francisco Rosario? Renyel Pinto? Mark McCormick?), you can expect their organization to be swayed by history. For now, Melvin and DePodesta are the newest GMs left hoping the past does repeat itself, and that their flamethrowers become the next K-Rod, Gagne, Benitez or Rivera.

I'll be crossing my fingers.

Minor League Notes

  • When Peter Gammons writes, people listen. So when Gammo introduced greater America to a new prospect, suddenly he's the flavor of the week. "Next up on the horizon is Edison Volquez, nicknamed 'Little Pedro,' who has been moved up Double-A Frisco." So, as we should in the case of any Ranger prospect, I turn to Jamey Newberg:

    Volquez needed only 105 pitches to complete the game, a remarkably low number considering the fact that he did record seven punchouts. The filthy change-up was almost Dominguez-esque, but it was as effective if not more so because of the greater life on his heater and the sharp breaking ball he mixed in.

    This came on the heels of a Volquez complete game in one of his first few AA starts, in which Newberg also reported he hit 95 in the ninth inning. So how did we allow Volquez to fly under the radar until now? Well, Volquez was good but not great between the Midwest and California Leagues last year, with K/9s right around 7.65, and BB/9 about 3.00. But nothing like this year, when the Rangers aggressively moved Edison to AA following 11 solid CL starts, and he has blossomed ever since.

    Still, Volquez cannot break the inner circle of Ranger pitching prospects, as John Danks and Thomas Diamond still rank better within the system. The southpaw was also moved up to AA, after just 10 starts, and has hung in there with Frisco since coming up. Danks hasn't really been great since the Midwest League last year, but he always pitches solid, and profiles to be a darn good #3 starter in the Majors. His ceiling, however, is not that of Diamond.

    Thomas Diamond showed us his ceiling on Sunday, when the right-hander pitched a one-hit, complete game shutout in which he struck out 14 hitters. While the Rangers have been very aggressive with their pitching prospects this season, Diamond remains the exception, the only member of the Bakerfield opening day rotation to still be with the team. One has to think that will change before his next start, and he will likely leave the California League with 1.99 ERA, 53 hits in 81.1 innings, with 101 strikeouts, 31 walks and just three home runs allowed.

    That performance yesterday re-opened the best SP prospect from the 2004 draft debate, where it looked like Justin Verlander was running away with things. Verlander has just been promoted to AA after dominating the Florida State League with a 1.67 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 86 innings. Both players have fantastic size and stuff, and have appeared to be in a competition of greatness this season. The question will likely get answered very soon, as Verlander moves from a good pitching league in the FSL to one of the minor's worst parks for pitchers in Erie.

  • With the injuries and season-long slumps piling up, it looks more and more everyday that this will not be Year 12 for the Atlanta Braves. Instead, it appears to be Year 1 of the rebuilding process. This season the club has been able to give offensive chances to Brian McCann (.833 OPS in 14AB), Wilson Betemit (1.014 in 82), Kelly Johnson (.687 in 47), Ryan Langerhans (.773 in 133), and most recently, Andy Marte (.479 in 28). On the pitching side, Kyle Davies (3.45 ERA in 6 GS) has appeared to supplant himself into the rotation.

    So what comes next? The Braves will lose Rafeal Furcal this offseason, who will in all likelihood be replaced by Betemit. The club will likely wait one more year to decide on whether Estrada or McCann will be the future Atlanta backstop. Andy Marte will likely head to the hot corner next year, pushing Chipper Jones into left field. Expect Johnson and Langerhans to continue a competition for the 2006 RF spot (a.k.a. waiting for Francoeur).

    And in centerfield, I offer a proposition. Andruw Jones, who will make $26.5M the next two seasons, gets traded to free up money. In exchange for Jones, Jim Hendry will offer Corey Patterson (Georgia native), Matt Murton (former GTech OF), and either Sergio Mitre, Rich Hill or Sean Gallagher. The Cubs will also pay $10M for each of the next two seasons, giving them a legitimate fifth hitter in exchange for a Wrigley not-so-favorite.

    The 2006 Braves, around the horn: Johnny Estrada (unless an offer comes for him), Adam LaRoche, Marcus Giles, Wilson Betemit, Andy Marte, Chipper Jones, Corey Patterson and Johnson/Langerhans.

  • To me, the College World Series invokes memories of great pitching performances from players overcoming aluminum bats. With Luke Hochevar already gone from the tournament, it appeared that yesterday's game would feature the last great pitching prospect in the CWS: Dallas Buck. The Oregon State right-hander has seen his stock go through the roof this season, and I eagerly anticipated watching Buck pitch. Unfortunately, it was not quite Dallas' best effort against a Baylor offense that is the worst of the CWS teams.

    In 5.2 innings, Buck allowed one earned run (three total), while scattering seven hits and two walks. Despite striking out more than 100 batters on the year, only two Bears went down on strikeouts. In fact, of the 91 pitches that he threw, only seven balls were swung and missed at. Furthermore, the acclaimed sinkerballer often compared to Derek Lowe registered just six ground ball outs.

    Still, not all was lost on the afternoon, as Buck kept his team in the game. He showed some mental toughness on the mound, though he gets visibly upset when mistakes are made. Think Carlos Zambrano, without the mid 90s four seamer. His sinker looked very good early, diving down and in to right-handers and coming in 88-91 mph. And not only did his slider show why it's such an out pitch, but Buck also spotted it for strikes.

    All in all, watching Buck I can understand why he will be sought after next year. But to become the player he can be, Buck must keep his sinker down, his slider away from right-handers, and his endurance (FB was down to 85-88 in 5th and 6th). You can bet that we'll be keeping our eyes on him, and I'll also have more on him very soon.

    Since we have not talked about the minors in quite some time in this space, please feel free to leave any minor league questions and comments below.

  • Comments

    Luke Prokopec went to the Blue Jays in the Dodgers' trade for Cesar Izturis and Paul Quantrill, not the Shawn Green trade. The Dodgers got Green for Raul Mondesi.

    And I am surprised that you did not note that Broxton's move to the bullpen occured right after news broke that Eric Gagne has a serious injury that may require surgery. Gagne's misfortunes, not the Dodgers' depth in starting prospects, seems to be the driving force behind Broxton's conversion to a reliever.

    Chipper has repeatedly stated his desire to NOT return to LF. If anything, he winds up at 1B.

    Thanks Richard, funny how the one thing in the article I don't double check, I get wrong. That's all fixed.

    That's a good point, as well, that Broxton may be trying relief to fill a Major League need. That is very similar to what Merkin Valdez of the Giants did last season, where he was rushed and subsequently returned to starting. Personally, I believe the Broxton move was always planned, this may have just pushed the timetable forward.

    And Malone, I just do not see Chipper playing third or first with this team. LaRoche isn't having the best year with the bat, I know, but he showed a lot of potential in the second half last season. To throw that away to keep an organizational favorite happy, when he would better help the team in left, seems very flawed to me.

    On the Royal pitching prospects:

    -- Burgos is not the closer, and hasn't been since Tony Pena resigned. He only had that role briefly because he simply doesn't have good control. He still struggles with his control as a setup pitcher, but when he's on, he's lights out. His 97 mph fastball and splitter sequence is just devastating. Unfortunately, he just went on the DL with right shoulder stiffness, which sent shivers down the collective spine of the Royals faithful.

    -- Nunez has great stuff as well, but he seems to lack the intangibles to this point. He's mostly effective, but when he's not, he just collapses. He doesn't seem to have much mental toughness to get through outings where his stuff and/or his control isn't top notch.

    -- Sisco has been great. He struggled a bit when he was being overworked in Pena's waning days, but now that his workload has restabilized he's been much more consistent.

    Although Burgos has picked up a couple of saves, that was while Pena was still managing and was going with the classic "closer by committee." Since Buddy Bell took over at the beginning of the month, MacDougal has been closing and Burgos/Sisco have seen most of their action as setup men.

    Burgos went on the DL yesterday with what the Royals are calling a rotator cuff strain. Sounds serious, but the team is hopeful he will return in a couple of weeks.

    Hope so, because when he's one, Burgos is something special to watch.

    Thanks guys, even if Burgos wasn't named the closer, he was certainly thrown into tough situations very quickly. I love the way he responded, and the way he improved after coming up to the Majors. The rotator cuff injury is a huge bummer, because I agree, Burgos has potential that is beyond special.

    You don't think 6'9" is big for a ballplayer. A pitcher, at least. I mean, come on, these are very large men doing impressive things with their body. But one Royals game I went to, I saw Sisco messing around with Zack Greinke. It was, perhaps, the most intimidating thing I've ever seen. He just dwarved Greinke. It was like Sisco was the teacher and Greinke was the preschooler. Just ridiculous

    Seriously, though, the three prospects you mention are amazing. If the Royals can get at least two of them to stay consistant, and to get them to grow, they will be the staples of the best bullpen in the MLB. MacDougal, Sisco, Nunez, Burgos, and even Affeldt, if he can figure his stuff out, would make one solid bullpen to backup the rotation with.

    Then, all of the one-run games the Royals have been losing will go away.

    "Still, Volquez cannot break the inner circle of Ranger pitching prospects, as John Danks and Thomas Diamond still rank better within the system."

    Don't be so sure. Volquez is 1A right now, Diamond 1B.

    Verlander was freaky-good in his AA debut. 7 innings, a single, and 11 K's. This included striking out the first 7 he faced.