A year ago this week, with his first full season still in its infancy, Jess Todd got his ticket to Double-A Springfield.
At the time, the thinking was simple. The Cardinals’ 2008 second-round pick would be a stopgap measure for a rotation that had seen Triple-A Memphis siphon away two key arms—righthander P.J. Walters and lefthander Jaime Garcia—after losing one of its own to a big league promotion and another to injury.
Todd’s numbers warranted a promotion. He had struck out 35 and issued only seven walks in 27 innings at high Class A Palm Beach. But given that he had pitched for Arkansas in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference, there was more curiousity in how the righthander would fare at the higher levels.
Todd handled Double-A with striking poise, parlaying it into a late-season promotion to Memphis, where this year he has taken on the high-pressure role of closer as a 23-year-old in Triple-A, in what amounts to his sophomore season in baseball.
"He’s made the transition really well," Memphis pitching coach Blaise Ilsley said in a phone interview this weekend. "I know he had some closing experience in college, so he’s really excited. And he’s performed really well so far."
So far, Todd is plowing through the Pacific Coast League. Here are his past six outings, the last on April 30:
Todd’s workmanship has led to a season line of 17 strikeouts, only three walks and all in 12 1/3 innings. He’s yielded just two runs, both earned, but those came on Opening Day. He’s been his usual bulldog self since.
All of which doesn’t so much surprise the Cardinals, who were delighted with Todd’s determination and dominace last year in Springfield (81 strikeouts, 24 walks in 103 IP) and plugged the righthander into Memphis’ closer’s role late in spring training when they wanted to shoehorn 2006 first-round Adam Ottavino into the rotation.
A cut fastball is his signature pitch, with a slider and changeup coming on as well.
"His cut fastball is good. He even backdoors it to lefties," Ilsley said. "It’s just a different animal coming out of the pen. He pitches aggressively and he comes at hitters. He’s got the makeup for that role."
Ilsley, one of those good soldiers every organization needs in its minor league system, has been a pitching coach in St. Louis’ high minors going back to the days when their Double-A club briefly exited the Texas League and spent time in the Eastern and then Southern leagues before heading back to the TL.
This is his second year now in Memphis. And while his temperament is not exactly militaristic it is disciplined, and probably to the benefit of a gung-ho pitcher like Todd, who climbed out of smalltown Killen, Texas in the northeastern part of the state and found his way to Navarro JC before heading on to Arkansas.
Scouts have long thought Todd would be a bullpen guy in the majors, partly because of a funky delivery and partly because he doesn’t have the overwhelming height advantage—he’s listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds—that other big league arms generally posses.
But he does have three pitches, the other two being the slider and change, and could be one of those swing guys so many teams crave, especially the Cardinals.
"When I saw (the slider) last year, it was a bigger version of his cutter," Ilsley said. "But now it’s got more tilt and depth to it. It’s a better pitch for him right now."
And the changeup?
"The change is coming along," Ilsley said. "But it’s tough When you’re in a tight game (for only an inning), you’ve got to go with your best weapon. He’s mixed in a few."
Overall, it’s a tremendous start.
"I like the way he’s gone about it," Ilsley said. "He goes about it aggressively and he throws strikes. These are big plusses for him. He’s done a very good job."
Speaking of Cardinals, top prospect Colby Rasmus hit his first big league homer on Saturday in a 6-1 loss to the Nationals. Check out Tony La Russa’s quote in the 11th graph.
A day after David Price was pulled after 39 pitches 3 1/3 innings, Triple-A Durham (Rays) righthander Wade Davis looked like he would have an early exit as well. But Davis forced Columbus (Indians) to strand four runners in scoring position in the first three innings and eked out the win by firing five innings in which he yielded just two runs on six hits.
Davis had trouble with his command early but found it in time in key situations before settling in. The righthander, along with injury-rehabbing Jason Isgrinhausen and Randy Choate, retired 16 in a row at one point.
Then again, Davis did not have to face Columbus’ Matt LaPorta or Luis Valbuena. The two were promoted to Cleveland on Saturday and then played Sunday for the Indians.
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reports their efforts against Tigers righthander Justin Verlander.
MORTY DOING WELL
The pitcher that the Cardinals drafted ahead of Todd, righthander Clayton Mortensen, is making progress in Memphis as well. The former Gonzaga Bulldog is 2-1, 1.48 with 16 strikeouts but also 12 walks in 24 1/3 innings.
"I think he’s a little more confident having had experience from last year," Ilsley said. "His sinker is solid, and his slider is getting better. It’s a good pitch at time. He just has a hrad time repeating it."
Look who’s off to a 4-1 start, with a nifty 0.91 ERA. That would be low Class A Lexington (Astros) righthander Ross Seaton, who was Houston’s third-round supplemental pick in 2008 and BA’s No. 3 Astros prospect.
He pocketed his third consecutive win on Sunday, firing six innings in which he allowed a run (unearned) over five hits. He also struck out two and issued two walks. The local paper in Lexington, Ky., has this on the pitching staff there.