Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Updated: June 1, 2:56 PM ET
College starters who rose very quickly
By Jerry Crasnick
Major League Baseball's 2011 first-year player draft is considered strong by recent standards, and it's chock full of college pitching prospects. From UCLA's Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole to Texas' Taylor Jungmann, Virginia's Danny Hultzen and Vanderbilt's Sonny Gray all the way to Connecticut's Matt Barnes, we've got lots of geographical regions covered.
High school pitchers have big long-term horizons and high "ceilings,'' but the college kids are more polished and have the command and secondary stuff to advance to the majors in a hurry. Rest assured that several teams will have the quick score in mind when the draft begins Monday in Secaucus, N.J.
"The hardest thing for all these kids is that you go from pitching every Friday night to pitching every five days,'' said Detroit scout Eddie Bane, who jumped directly to the Minnesota Twins' rotation as a first-round draft pick out of Arizona State in 1973. "I think that's the biggest hurdle they have to overcome, more than the talent or anything else. Your body just isn't used to pitching every five days.''
With the draft approaching, we spend this edition of Starting 9 looking back at nine collegiate starters in the past dozen years who lingered in the minors just long enough to witness a few midnight McDonald's runs and between-innings ring-toss competitions before getting the call to The Show. Some have quickly ascended to stardom, while others fell victim to injury, bad luck or the harsh reality that big league hitters are just really, really good.
With the notable exception of David Price, who did a postseason cameo in relief with Tampa Bay in 2008, we focused on pitchers who began their big league careers as starters, so Ryan Perry, Chris Sale and some recent fast-track relievers don't apply. Since we also kept it recent, Jim Abbott, Ben McDonald, Darren Dreifort and some other noteworthy fast movers didn't make the list.
Tim Lincecum, Giants (13 minor league starts)
Luke Hochevar, Greg Reynolds, Andrew Miller and Billy Rowell were among nine players chosen ahead of Lincecum in the first round of the 2006 draft. Amazing as it seems in hindsight, some teams were gun-shy about taking a 5-foot-11, 170-pound right-hander with such an unorthodox motion. But San Francisco scouting director Dick "Dirt'' Tidrow wasn't among them. Tidrow pronounced himself "shocked'' that Lincecum was still on the board before making him the first-ever first-round pick in University of Washington baseball history.
Not long afterward, several clubs that passed on Lincecum were queasy with remorse. "The Freak'' logged 31 innings above Class A ball before getting the call against Philadelphia in early May 2007. He gave up homers to Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino in an 8-5 loss in his debut, but as Howard observed after the game, "He throws 98 to 99 with a great hammer. Once he learns to use it, he's going to be deadly.''
Four years later, Lincecum has two Cy Young Awards and a World Series ring in his portfolio, and he's about to become the eighth pitcher in the modern era to record 1,000 strikeouts over his first five seasons. The other seven: Tom Seaver, Bert Blyleven, Dwight Gooden, Kerry Wood, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Hideo Nomo and Mark Langston. Unless we're off base, Lincecum is probably the only pitcher in that group who can do back flips, walk on his hands and appeared in a video-game commercial with Randy Johnson.
David Price, Rays (27 minor league starts)
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon saw first-hand what a poised young pitcher can achieve in the fall of 2002, when John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez arrived from the minors and helped lead the Angels to the franchise's first and only World Series victory. So Maddon wasn't afraid to expose Price, the No. 1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt in the 2007 draft, to some early pressure on the big stage in October.
After a mid-September call-up to the majors, Price warmed to his big bullpen cameo during the 2008 postseason. He notched a Game 7 save against Boston in the ALCS to earn a spot at the bottom of an infield dogpile, then showed up at a Tampa rally to introduce aspiring presidential candidate Barack Obama. Even though the Rays lost to Philadelphia in the World Series, a pitching star was born.
Price's 144 minor league innings were more than good enough as a foundation. Since joining the Tampa Bay rotation on May 25, 2009, Price is 35-17 with a 3.40 ERA. Among big league starters with at least 50 career decisions, only Jon Lester (68-26) and Josh Johnson (47-21) have a better winning percentage. In 427 1/3 career innings, Price has allowed only two home runs to left-handed hitters. Take a bow, Chase Utley and Curtis Granderson.
Justin Verlander, Tigers (15 minor league starts)
Verlander, the pride of Goochland, Va., has never lacked for confidence or been afraid to aim high.
"The Hall of Fame's always been a goal of mine, ever since I was a little kid,'' he told the Detroit Free Press two years ago. "When I was younger, I wanted to beat Nolan Ryan's strikeout record, but I know that's not going to happen. The Hall of Fame is something I feel is attainable, but that's a long ways off.''
Not as far off as it used to be.
Old Dominion's baseball program lacks the cachet of the big Pac-10 or SEC powers, but Verlander's apprenticeship in the Colonial Athletic Association didn't prevent him from moving up quickly in the pros. After going to Detroit with the No. 2 pick in 2004, Verlander joined the Tigers for two starts in July 2005 sandwiched around an appearance in the All-Star Futures Game. The following spring, after 118 innings in the minors, he was in the big leagues to stay.
Now 28, Verlander has three All-Star appearances, two no-hitters and a strikeout title on his résumé. He gets a lot of attention for his fastball, which ranks second to Seattle rookie Michael Pineda's heater this season at an average velocity of 95.1 mph. But Verlander's most impressive attribute might be his endurance. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Verlander has thrown a major league leading 14,565 pitches since 2007. Verlander, CC Sabathia and Dan Haren are the only pitchers in baseball to have thrown more than 14,000 pitches in that span.
Jered Weaver, Angels (133 minor league innings)
Weaver put together one of the most dominant seasons in collegiate history in 2004, going 15-1 with a 1.63 ERA and 213 strikeouts in 144 innings for Long Beach State. Bane, then the Angels' scouting director, snagged him with the 12th pick because some other teams were scared off by Weaver's price tag.
With Scott Boras as his adviser, Weaver held out until a week before the 2005 draft before signing for a $4 million bonus. But money wasn't the only concern about Weaver. "He pitches with tenacity and passion,'' wrote Baseball America. But BA also noted that "Weaver's command is more notable than his stuff, and some scouts think he's more of a No. 3 starter than a headliner. He's an extreme flyball pitcher and is vulnerable to homers.''
Although Weaver does allow his share of homers and throws across his body in a way that makes some talent evaluators anxious about his long-term health, it's hard to argue with the results. He's 70-43 with a 3.42 career ERA, a strikeout title and an All-Star Game appearance on his résumé, and this year he's combined with Dan Haren to give the Angels one of the best 1-2 starting combinations in the big leagues.
"His 92 [mph] is everybody else's 98,'' Bane said. "Hitters just can't see the ball. Fortunately for Jered and the Angels, he was stubborn enough not to change that delivery, which was a great idea.''
Barry Zito, A's (31 starts and 170 innings in the minors)
Before Zito became an object of derision for his $126 million contract in San Francisco, he was a refreshingly candid, free-thinking lefty who played the guitar, called everybody "Dude,'' dabbled in Taoism and yoga and carried scented candles along on road trips to facilitate his breathing exercises.
All the focus on Zito's eccentricities obscured his natural feel for pitching. The Athletics snagged him out of USC with the ninth overall pick in 1999, and plugged him into their rotation with Tim Hudson, Gil Heredia, Kevin Appier and Mark Mulder shortly after the All-Star break a year later.
Zito contributed 12 quality starts in 14 appearances during the 2000 pennant drive, pitched valiantly in a playoff loss to the Yankees and went 23-5 in 2002 to beat out Pedro Martinez for the AL Cy Young Award.
Zito was a different pitcher in those days. He threw his fastball in the 89-91 mph range in college, and according to FanGraphs, he generated a swing-and-miss rate of 10.4 percent as a rookie with Oakland. "He just misses bats,'' A's GM Billy Beane said at the time.
Was Zito worth that mammoth contract from San Francisco? The answer, obviously, is no. But it wasn't his fault the Giants were so generous.
"He had such great makeup and such a desire to pitch in the big leagues,'' said a scout. "And he threw harder at USC. He had a great brain for baseball, too. It's a lot easier to be analytical when the ball is going at 91 or 92 than at 82.''
Mark Prior, Cubs (nine starts, 51 minor league innings)
The latest news flash on Prior: After signing a minor league deal with the Yankees in January, he's on the disabled list with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with a lingering groin injury. Prior has pitched a total of three innings in the minors in his latest comeback attempt.
"I guess the one way to look at it is, it's not my shoulder,'' Prior told the Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune. "But unfortunately, it hasn't been getting better. It has been a long month, to say the least."
This certainly isn't what the Cubs envisioned when they brought Prior to the big leagues in 2003 and he helped fuel a baseball resurgence at Wrigley Field with sidekick Kerry Wood. Prior's poise, stuff and seemingly flawless mechanics prompted veteran baseball observers to compare him to the likes of Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer.
"This is the type of kid where it's once-in-your-baseball-lifetime,'' Cubs president Andy MacPhail said in October 2003. "To this point, he's that special."
That was before an exasperating run of injuries sidetracked Prior's career long before he could tap his potential. For sake of brevity, we'll limit the rundown to two shoulder surgeries and the fractured right elbow that Prior suffered on a 117-mph comebacker off the bat of Brad Hawpe in 2005.
Now 30 years old, Prior has a career 42-29 record with a 3.51 ERA, and he hasn't pitched in the majors since 2006. He's a cautionary tale on the dangers of proclaiming a player a "sure thing'' too soon.
Jeff Weaver, Tigers (31 minor league innings)
The Weaver brothers of Northridge, Calif., have something in common besides blond hair, lanky frames and a mutual allegiance to Scott Boras. Jeff, the older sibling, went to Detroit as the 14th pick in the 1998 draft out of Fresno State, and made six starts in the minors before his big league debut in April 1999.
Weaver had his moments during an 11-year big league career. He threw 200 or more innings four times, played a major role in St. Louis' 2006 title run after his arrival in a stretch-drive trade, and rubbed champagne out of his eyes after beating Detroit in the deciding game of the World Series. Then Weaver prolonged his career by reinventing himself as a reliever for Joe Torre in Los Angeles for two seasons.
But Weaver never made an All-Star team, and his top Baseball-Reference.com comparables are Brett Tomko, Ismael Valdez and Andy Ashby. Combine a 104-119 record and a 4.71 ERA with a low-key persona and indifferent body language, and you have a first-round pick who'll generally be remembered as an underachiever.
Mike Leake, Reds (straight from college to majors)
Leake blends right in with the crowd with his 5-10, 175-pound frame and upper-80s fastball, but he went 40-6 at Arizona State and showed enough pitching acumen to convince the Reds to choose him eighth overall in the 2009 draft. Then he displayed enough poise in spring training to convince Dusty Baker to plug him into the team's Opening Day rotation a year ago.
Leake became the 21st player to go directly from college to the majors. He was the first pitcher to do it since Darren Dreifort went straight to the Dodgers from Wichita State as a reliever in 1994, and the first starter to achieve the feat since Michigan's Jim Abbott leapfrogged the minors to join the 1989 Angels' rotation.
Leake went 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA out of the chute while Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman were both pitching in the minors, and he impressed scouts with his fearlessness and five-pitch repertoire. But with the passage of time and repeated viewings by NL lineups, he's found the transition from the Pac-10 to the big leagues isn't quite as seamless as it appeared at first glance. Leake is an athletic kid who fields his position, runs and hits well, but his stuff is more conducive to an extended run as a back-of-the-rotation guy than a bunch of All-Star Game appearances.
"There's a tremendous difference between a No. 3 and a No. 4,'' said an AL scout. "The first guy can pitch for you in the playoffs, and the second guy probably won't. If you're on a contending team, that's obviously one of the things you're looking at, and it's one of the things that drives the July 31 trade deadline. For me, Mike Leake is a No. 4 or probably a 5.''
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (11 minor league starts)
No pitcher in baseball history has been accompanied by greater hype than Strasburg, who logged 55 1/3 innings in two minor league stops with Washington last spring, then joined the Nationals in early June amid cries of, "What the heck took you so long?''
By the time Strasburg strolled into Nationals Park for his debut, Washington baseball historians were invoking the name of Walter Johnson, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was comparing the kid to Bob Feller, fans were elbowing each other out of the way in their pursuit of Strasburg T-shirts, and one local restaurant was selling the "Strasburger'' -- a beef patty covered in a hot dog and smothered in aged Vermont cheddar cheese -- for $10.99 and donating a portion of the proceeds to charity.
Strasburg lived up to the billing, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates, walking none and whiffing the last seven batters he faced in his Nationals debut. Of the 94 pitches that Strasburg threw, 34 clocked in at 98 mph or faster on the radar gun. Some fans and writers were so smitten, they lobbied for NL manager Charlie Manuel to give him a spot on the All-Star team after only a handful of outings.
Of course, the dream debut and Strasburg's Rookie of the Year aspirations died when he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery in August. The good news: Strasburg threw off the mound last week for the first time since his surgery, and he proceeded to rejoice via Twitter.
"First bullpen in the books,'' Strasburg tweeted. "Felt great! Hopefully time will speed up now!''
Strasburg may or may not be ready for a token appearance in a game later this season. But if he comes close to what he showed in his first go-round, his career is going to merit more than one exclamation point.
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.
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