Maturity Has Drabek Ready For Toronto's Rotation
DUNEDIN, FLA.—If the saying is true, and you really are only young once, then the Blue Jays will have to take advantage while they can.
Since the beginning of Alex Anthopoulos' tenure as general manager in October 2009, the Toronto team has taken on a much more youthful look, trading away veterans for prospects and moving up the Baseball America talent rankings for the depth it now has in its farm system.
The most recent offseason saw veteran outfielder Vernon Wells and potential ace Shaun Marcum dealt away, only a year after the club traded 2010 National League Cy Young Award winner and Baseball America Player of the Year Roy Halladay.
Toronto's GM made his first big splash while just getting his feet wet with the team. In a blockbuster trade just two months after beginning his tenure with the Jays, Anthopoulos sent Halladay to the Phillies, getting prospects Kyle Drabek, Travis d'Arnaud and Michael Taylor in return.
Drabek is currently the youngest of the young pitching staff, but is a serious contender to crack Toronto's rotation this year.
The talented 23-year-old has a chance to prove that he is ready to start the season in the major leagues this spring, just a few short years after scouts were questioning his draft stock because of a couple incidents in high school—including a car crash and a public intoxication charge that was later dropped.
"When all that stuff was going on, there wasn't a problem," Drabek said during an interview at the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. "It was just a bunch of overblown stuff. When I was in high school talking to teams I told them that there was no problem, that there would never be a problem and ever since I've been drafted there hasn't been."
While the righthander hasn't had any personal issues come to light since Philadelphia drafted him 18th overall in 2006, he did start to have pitching problems in 2007, resulting in Tommy John surgery. Though just hearing the name of the procedure can be cause for distress to most hurlers, Drabek came back not only throwing better, but also having matured, with help from lefthander Mike Zagurski, who was also rehabbing at the time.
"Having Tommy John changed my mechanics a lot, which helped the command of my pitches," Drabek said. "Then there was getting to see the other side of baseball from just sitting and watching it for a year. Zagurski had surgery about the same time that I did, so we were able to sit there and watch games. Since he had been up (in the major leagues) he was able to give me some insight on different things."
Drabek tried to learn as much as possible during his time away from the mound, picking the southpaw's brain for any information he had retained during his time with the Phillies. Zagurski's insight came from conversations he'd had with pitchers like Jamie Moyer and Cole Hamels while he was with the big league club.
"He had help from guys like Mike Zagurski and the coaches, but a lot of it he did himself," Phillies pitching coordinator Gorman Heimueller said. "I think a lot of his maturity was just getting older. I know I did a lot of stuff when I was 17 and look back and go, 'Wow, what was I thinking?' But the other part is, he's so competitive. So with him, when he blew it out, he was very good with the rehab because he decided he had to beat it. He knew he had to work hard to not go through it again.
"So there's no question the surgery wound up being good for him. He was very diligent in his work ethic, and it paid off."
Being drafted out of one of the best baseball high schools in Texas, The Woodlands, Drabek was in for a change of pace heading onto the Phillies farm. In his senior year, the righty went 14-0 for a team that notched only one loss all season.
"It's definitely a different game with the elite players," Drabek said. "You go up the minor league ladder and you know you're going to lose. That was something that changed a little bit for me, going from a team that always won to a team that could lose some games."
After taking home the 2010 Eastern League pitcher of the year award, Drabek earned a September callup. There he got his first taste of losing in the big leagues, going 0-3, 4.76 for the Blue Jays, though he didn't allow more than three runs in any of his outings. He's still looking for his first major league win, and is optimistic that it might happen in the near future.
"I'm hoping it could be my next one," the son of 1990 National League Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek said. "I had three chances and came up with zero. But I'm just looking forward to hopefully making the team this year."
Lot To Learn
With the September experience came newfound wisdom for the rookie, who will be even better equipped to take the mound for the upcoming season.
"There was a lot that I learned," Drabek said. "From composure on the mound, to mechanics to actually studying the hitters.
"In Double-A we would go over the hitters a little bit but in the big leagues it feels like they don't have a bad spot. All their spots are good. Learning the hitters and being able to stay calm on the mound were two of the things that I learned."
In order to make the club out of spring training, Drabek will be working on developing his pitches, with a cutter that needs honing and a changeup that is still evolving to go with his average-to-plus fastball and a plus-plus curve. Without working on one specific pitch, Drabek will be sharpening his entire repertoire of pitches this spring.
"My focus for the most part is the command of all my pitches and repeating my mechanics," he said. "Those two things are real big for me, especially the mechanics. I tend to change them up a little bit and I fall off a bunch, which takes away the command."
Drabek has been learning to better command the changeup he was forced to start throwing in the Phillies system, allowing him more success against lefthanded hitters, which could potentially help his cause in the fight for the chance to be a starter. Though the pitch still needs work, it has come a long way since he started throwing it.
"It was horrible," Drabek said. "So I never threw it. Then these past two years, especially last year, I was throwing it a lot more to lefties and it became a dominant pitch for me to get them out. It was something else besides the fastball or the curveball for them to look at."
Continuously trying to improve, the top rookie in the Jays organization doesn't feel any pressure to make it into Toronto's starting rotation by the time the regular season starts, though the idea isn't something that's slipped his mind this spring.
"I just know that I'm going to have to work hard and put a lot of effort into pitching and learning so that I can make the team."