Storm Warning

Arms from 2007 draft pace Lake Elsinore rotation




LAKE ELSINORE, Calif.—The Padres' draft bonanza of 2007, which featured eight picks through the first two rounds, has produced mixed results.

Catcher Mitch Canham (supplemental first round), second baseman Eric Sogard (second) and shortstop Lance Zawadzki (fourth) have established themselves as regulars at Double-A. On the other hand, San Diego's top three selections, first-rounder Nick Schmidt and supplemental picks Kellen Kulbacki and Drew Cumberland, all have had inconsistent and injury-marred starts to their careers.

Maybe that has played a role in obscuring the success enjoyed by the Lake Elsinore rotation, four-fifths of which joined the organization via that '07 draft. Lefty Cory Luebke, the 63rd overall pick from Ohio State, paces a group of college pitchers that also includes righthanders Corey Kluber (fourth, Stetson), Jeremy Hefner (fifth, Oral Roberts) and Wynn Pelzer (ninth, South Carolina).

Righthander Jeremy McBryde, a 2006 draft-and-follow from Rose State (Okla.) JC, is the lone exception.

"Across the board, this is the best rotation that we have had in a long time," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "Every one of our starters could be considered a prospect or someone who could help a major league club."

Pelzer, 23, is the classic late-bloomer, as someone who always has had the talent but lacked the results. A line drive off his kneecap in the '07 Cape Cod League prevented Pelzer from beginning his pro career until the following year at low Class A Fort Wayne. This season, he went 7-3, 4.90 through 13 starts, recording 74 strikeouts and 24 walks in 712⁄3 innings.

He throws a mix of two- and four-seam fastballs, touching the mid-90s with regularity, to go along with a plus slider and developing changeup. Because he worked mostly as a reliever in college, his control and ability to go deep into games has improved significantly as a pro.

"In the offseason, the main thing was getting comfortable with my changeup so that I could throw it in any count," Pelzer said. "Fastball command is something I have always worked on."

"He has an electric arm and likes to compete," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "To me, he has the potential to be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the big leagues."

Changing Speeds

McBryde, a 26th-round pick from Oklahoma City in 2006 who signed right before the '07 draft, learned to change speeds last season, in the process becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower.

With Fort Wayne last season, McBryde struck out 158 batters in 1362⁄3 innings. But he also allowed 151 hits. This season, the 22-year-old started 6-2, 3.53 with 71 strikeouts and 17 walks in 632⁄3 innings.

"The big thing was using my changeup more," he said. "I was getting outs with my slider, but I really didn't have a third pitch. In the second half, I had it and it gave the batters something else to think about."

At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, McBryde generates good plane and sink on his fastball, and batting against him has been compared to trying to hit a bowling ball.

"His sinker is just a very difficult pitch for hitters to drive," Storm pitching coach Dave Rajsich said.

Luebke, 23, started the year by going 7-2, 2.48 and leading the California League in wins, ERA and innings (831⁄3). An athletic 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he is not a typical finesse lefty. Nor is he going to light up the radar gun. His fastball sits at 89-91 mph and he throws everything down in the zone. The Padres attempted to fast track Luebke to the Cal League last year, but after being hit hard in the first half (6.84 ERA), he spent the rest of the summer in Fort Wayne.

"I was rushing my bottom half and not keeping my weight back," he said. "I started keeping a better posture through my delivery."

A Curve In The Road

Hefner, 23, has proven to be one of the organization's most dominating performers since the day he signed shortly after the '07 draft. Previously reliant on a lethal mix of sinking fastballs, sliders and changeups, Hefner began throwing a curveball again during last year's instructional league.

He threw the pitch in high school, but Hefner struggled to regain command of the pitch until recently. Even so, he began the year by going 6-6, 4.16 with 75 strikeouts and 15 walks in 67 innings.

"I could throw my slider for a strike anytime I wanted, so I didn't have to rely on my fastball as much," Hefner said. "Now, it's forcing me to throw it more for strikes because I can't throw my curve for a strike three-quarters of the time."

As they did with Luebke, the Padres attempted to fast track Kluber to the Cal League, where he struggled before rebounding in Fort Wayne.

"I might have given the hitters up here too much credit and attempted to make my pitches too fine," Kluber said. "When I got to Fort Wayne, I just focused on pounding the zone, and that is what turned it around for me."

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the 23-year-old Kluber resembles his Storm rotation-mates in terms of both physicality and stuff. He pounds the zone with sinking fastballs, sliders and with the changeup, the Padres' favorite pitch. Through 14 starts, Kluber had gone 5-6, 4.19 and had logged a Cal League-leading 93 strikeouts, to go with 27 walks, in 812⁄3 innings.

John Conniff is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.