SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Scorpions pitching coach Bob Milacki had never seen Donnie Veal pitch before the Pirates lefthander arrived for the Arizona Fall League season. He had read the scouting reports on Veal and knew all about the command problems that had plagued him for the last couple of seasons. He knew Veal’s confidence was down because of his inability to throw strikes.
He’s seen an entirely different pitcher this fall, one who is arguably the top pitcher in the AFL after the season’s first four weeks.
“I would have never thought he had any problems after seeing the way he’s pitched here,” said Milacki, who coached this summer at the Phillies’ low Class A Lakewood affiliate, “because he hasn’t had any problems since he’s been here. He just got locked in and he’s tremendous.”
Prior to joining the Pittsburgh organization in last year’s Rule 5 draft, Veal spent four years in the Cubs organization. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound lefthander was selected in the second round of the 2005 draft out of Pima (Ariz.) CC. He ranked as the Cubs’ second-best prospect after a 2006 season in which he led all minor league pitchers by holding opposition batters to a .175 average, and was named co-player of the year in the Cubs farm system.
Veal was considered as one of the best lefthanded pitching prospects in the game at that point in his career. But he looked like a different pitcher in Double-A in both 2007 and 2008 as he progressively struggled to maintain his mechanics and velocity.
He was also dealing with another major issue. Veal’s mother had passed away from stomach cancer in 2004. Three years later, tragedy struck again when his father, Donald Sr., died from a scuba diving accident. Veal was left to handle the family affairs and to be there for his younger brother, Devin, then 19.
But Veal refuses to blame his personal tragedies for any of his problems on the field.
“It’s nothing I wish upon anyone . . . I didn’t want to go through it; my brother didn’t want to go through it,” Veal said. “The biggest worry is to take care of my brother. That’s off the field. When I’m on the field, it’s kind of an escape.”
Veal was left off the Cubs 40-man roster after the 2008 season, making him eligible for the Rule 5 draft. The Pirates grabbed him with the fourth pick, meaning that he would have to stay on the major league roster for the entire 2009 season in order to be retained by Pittsburgh.
Being selected by Pittsburgh was a bit of a shock to Veal. It was hard for him to leave his original organization.
“Obviously I was a little disappointed because that’s the team that drafted me,” he said. “You really want to make the big leagues with that team.”
But Veal saw his opportunity with Pittsburgh as a fresh start and a chance to get to the big leagues quicker than if he had stayed in the Cubs organization.
Desert Dogs manager Jeff Banister, the Pirates’ minor league field coordinator, first saw Veal in a mini-camp a month after the Rule 5 draft.
“You saw some of the delivery issues . . . a little bit out of control,” Banister said. “He was a hard thrower. It all goes back to a young guy with a good arm; you like to throw the ball by the bat.”
With the exception of two rehab stints in the minors, Veal spent the entire season in Pittsburgh but pitched just 16 1/3 innings for the big league club. Most of his time with the Buccos was spent in bullpen sessions and classroom work.
Veal doesn’t consider his season in Pittsburgh to have been lost development time.
“(I learned) how to be a big leaguer, how to go about your business every day, how to present yourself every day, how to go about your work,” he said. “It was the little things that helped a lot, because I know now that even if I start in Triple-A or wherever, I know what’s expected and how you’re supposed to carry yourself.”
Veal’s command issues remained in 2009, as he walked 46 batters in a combined 43 2/3 innings between Pittsburgh, Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona. But the Pirates still see that powerful left arm and big body and believe he has a future as a starter. That’s been his role in Arizona this fall, and the organization is extremely pleased with his performance.
“The arm you see, the stuff you see, and the body . . . that’s all him,” Banister said. “He has taken to the things that our organization has asked him to do. A number of people have been instrumental in a lot of the things that Donnie is doing, but ultimately it comes down to the kid. You watch him and he’s a lot calmer and able to repeat his delivery a lot better. “
It didn’t take long for Milacki to see the improvement in Veal.
“His first outing was unbelievable,” said Milacki. “I had never seen him throw before against hitters, and he just walked through the hitters—six up, six down—like high school kids against a professional athlete.”
Veal’s AFL numbers tell the story of his turnaround this fall. After five starts, he’s 3-0, 0.54, with 17 strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings. Most importantly, the 25-year-old Arizona native has walked only two batters. He’s been consistent with three pitches this fall, using an effective curveball and mixing in a changeup to go with his fastball.
It’s the fastball that has been his money pitch, especially with the ability to throw it for first pitch strikes.
“He’s been all the way up to 95,” said Milacki. “It’s so free and easy, it’s not like max effort. When he stays on top of that ball and stays top to bottom, he creates good angle and good life on his fastball.”
Veal’s confidence grows with every outing. “Just the fact that I can keep my delivery and I can feel it, that’s a huge confidence boost,” he said. “Just being able to pound the strike zone and not getting behind 2-0, 3-1 on every batter.”
Milacki agrees that confidence is the key to Veal’s success.
“The big thing is that he’s so confident right now,” said Milacki. “What I heard before was that his confidence was down because he wasn’t throwing strikes.”
“But he’s throwing strikes here,” continued Milacki, “and he’s on top of the world.”
• Former Twins general manager Terry Ryan was honored on Tuesday as the 2009 recipient of the AFL’s Roland Hemond Award. The award is presented annually to recognize a baseball executive who has provided at least 15 years of outstanding service to professional baseball and served the Arizona Fall League in a key leadership capacity. Ryan is a member of the Arizona Fall League oversight committee.
• One of the new arrivals this week was Indians outfielder Tim Fedroff, replacing Nick Weglarz. The lefthanded hitting outfielder, who spent the 2009 season with high Class A Kinston, was picked in the seventh round of the 2008 draft out of North Carolina.
• The Astros sent catcher Jason Castro home for the rest of the season. Castro has caught 101 games in the minors and AFL this season, with a stint with Team USA in the World Cup and a three-run homer in the Futures Game thrown in for good measure.