The Braves were aggressive with Mike Minor's first full-season assignment, sending their 2009 first-round pick straight to Double-A Mississippi despite having just four official pro appearances under his belt. With his pitching smarts and four-pitch repertoire, the club felt Minor would be ready for Southern League competition.
Minor's first two starts didn't exactly validate the assignment. The M-Braves' Opening Day starter, Minor gave up four runs on six hits over five innings against Tennessee in his first outing. He was back on the mound six days later to face West Tenn and the results were about the same. He surrendered five runs on five hits in four innings, though he did strike out seven. Mississippi pitching coach Marty Reed observed that Minor seemed to be trying to do a bit too much on the mound.
"What he was trying to do in the first couple of games was trying to make every pitch exactly where he wants to make it" Reed said. "And when he wasn't, he was getting frustrated."
But Reed noticed something different about Minor even before his start Monday against Mobile.
"Just warming up in the bullpen, I knew he was going to have a good outing," Reed said. "You could just tell by the way he was throwing in the pen. He was down in the zone a little bit more. I guess the best term would be it was like he settled in. He just started to feel comfortable where he was at."
Reed's premonition was correct as Minor dominated the BayBears for seven innings, striking out nine and permitting just two hits. He pounded the bottom half of the zone with his fastball, inducing seven groundouts compared with two flyouts, and effectively mixed in his changeup and curveball. He had to pitch out of serious trouble only once, when the BayBears loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh thanks in part to a pair of walks. But Minor extricated himself from the situation by striking out Mobile shortstop Jake Wald looking to punctuate his evening.
He finished the night having thrown 93 pitches. The only blemishes on Minor's evening were the five walks he handed out, along with the Mississippi bullpen being unable to hold the 1-0 lead Minor left the game with, denying him his first win as a pro.
Aside from stopping trying to be perfect with every pitch, the other change in Minor's approach from his first two starts to Monday was his sticking with his curveball as his primary breaking pitch rather than trying to throw both a curve and a slider.
"He's got an above-average major league curveball," Reed said. "I think what happened was he was probably in between both of them (the curve and the slider). He was trying to do way too much that he didn't need to do. He was trying to be the jack of all trades but (was) the master of none. "(He was) not realizing that with the command that he has of his fastball and the plus changeup that he has, that that third pitch is as good a curveball as he's got. You don't have to have seven pitches to pitch in the big leagues."
The other good news for Minor is that Reed reported his fastball velocity as sitting at 90-91 mph and touching 93. He pitched in the upper 80s during his college career at Vanderbilt, but sat in the low 90s during his stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2009. His strikeout rate has been much higher so far in the Southern League though, as he's fanned 22 hitters in 16 innings, compared to just 12 in 16 2/3 AFL innings. If he can maintain that velocity all year, then his ceiling could be higher than the future middle-of-the-rotation starter he was rated as coming into the season.
"He's a sharp kid," Reed said. "He has a pretty good understanding of what he's doing. I think he's going to be fine. (Monday) was a real good outing for him, but I think it's just a stepping stone. I wouldn't be surprised if he reels off four or five more good outings right in a row."
Lucroy Movin' Up
One hitter Minor won't have to worry about facing in the Southern League is Jonathan Lucroy, formerly of Huntsville. The Brewers promoted the 23-year-old catcher to Triple-A Nashville yesterday after he'd gotten off to a .452/.500/.524 start through 42 at-bats for the Stars, leaving the SL behind as its leading hitter.
Lucroy's manager with Huntsville, Mike Guerrero, had worked with him previously as the manager at high Class A Brevard County in 2008 and could see the difference in Lucroy's maturation level from then to now.
"He's improved as you go through the ladder," Guerrero said. "As you go higher, the game gets a little faster and you have to think within the game a little quicker and recognize situations. And he has improved in that area. I believe that as he goes to Triple-A, he'll grow up a lot more. You're always learning in baseball. It's just a game where you're always learning about everything."
After hitting a combined 20 home runs in 2008 between stints with Brevard County and low Class A West Virginia, Lucroy hit just nine last year with Huntsville. He still held his own with a .267/.380/.418 line in 419 at-bats, but his average and slugging percentage were both easily career lows.
His on-base skills weren't diminished though, as Lucroy walked more than he struck out (78 walks, 66 whiffs), and he'd had picked up where he left off to start this year, having struck out just three times in 10 games. He drew praise from Guerrero as a line-drive hitter who excels at letting the ball travel deep in the zone and using the whole field.
Guererro also liked Lucroy's work behind the plate, saying he'd improved his blocking and receiving, doing a better job of reading pitches in the dirt and getting in position to keep the ball in front of him. He had yet to allow a passed ball after giving up 12 last year, second-most in the SL.
• Remember Stephen Marek? The 26-year-old righthander is all the Braves have left to show for the string of trades that brought Mark Teixeira in from the Rangers in 2007. After mostly treading water for two years at Double-A, including going 3-3, 5.72 in 39 innings at Mississippi last year, Marek has come out of the gates on fire in 2010, striking out 11 and giving up just three hits through 6 2/3 innings so far. Reed noted that Marek came into spring training more committed to his craft, having dropped 20-25 pounds since 2009 spring training. Marek's fastball has been sitting in the low 90s and he complements it with a plus 12-to-6 curveball
"He's been lights out for us," Reed said. "I don't think he can pitch any better than he's thrown. He's locating his fastball where he wants, down in the zone consistently and then he'll elevate when he's ahead in the count. And then he's got an above-average curveball. And the thing that's been something we're really happy about is that when he doesn't have his real good curveball, it seems like his fastball location is even better."
• Lucroy isn't the only Huntsville hitter to have gotten off to a hot start. Outfielder Lorenzo Cain, 24, missed most of 2009 with a left knee injury suffered in spring training and hit just .214/.277/.338 in 42 games with Huntsville after getting back on the field. Healthy to start 2010, Cain has opened the year on a 12-game hitting streak and, after going 2-for-4 Tuesday night at West Tenn, was sporting a .385/.458/.423 average through 52 at-bats. Another sign of Cain's return to health is his basestealing proficiency, as he's gone 8-for-8 to lead the league after swiping just three bases all of last year.
Cain didn't even start playing baseball until high school, where the Brewers drafted him in the 17th round in 2004, then watched him play a year at Tallahassee (Fla.) CC before signing him as a draft-and-follow. As such, he was more raw then the typical prospect entering pro ball, but it looks like his instincts might be starting to catch up to his athleticism.
"His hitting approach has improved," Guerrero said. "He's letting the ball travel. He's using his lower half to hit. I think he's going to get better as the season goes along. It's only been a small part of the season, but you can see the improvement these guys have done in 10 ballgames."
• Mike Stanton has homered only once over his last 10 games, but that doesn't mean Southern League pitchers are any more anxious to face the Marlins' 20-year-old outfield phenom. Stanton leads the SL having drawn 13 walks—not counting two intentionals—through 12 games.
"When he went from A-ball to Double-A last year, he reverted back to some things, expanded the zone." Marlins vice president of scouting and player development Jim Fleming said. "The big thing with Mike is just getting him patient and having good at-bats, and he had great at-bats in spring training and so far this early spring he's had great at-bats.
"When you have that kind of power, people pitch you very carefully. It's just pitch selection and pitch identification, those are the two major things he's been working on. At this point this year, it's been really good."
Stanton was hitting .273/.448/.500 with three homers through 44 at-bats, a nice jump from the .231/.311/.455 line he posted in 79 Double-A games last year after being promoted from high Class A Jupiter. Stanton is still striking out a fair amount with 14 through 12 games, but that figure is slightly better than his career norms even though he's facing more advanced competition.
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