Low Class A Report

Reds' new pitching approach gets test in Dayton





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The Reds have had little trouble developing hitters over the years. Pitching, however, is another story.

The most infamous flameouts are Chris Gruler and Ty Howington, both first-round choices who failed to reach their potential due to various arm problems.

Other “what-if” stories include Bobby Basham and Richie Gardner, once the No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in their system who succumbed to torn labrums, and lefthander Philip Dumatrait, who had Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2004 (though he did bounce back in 2005).

For further proof of their failure to produce arms, look to Brett Tomko. He was the last starting pitcher the Reds drafted that contributed in Cincinnati, and he was a second-round pick back in 1995.

It is a new year, however, and every team has optimism. The Reds, under new general manager Wayne Krivsky, are hoping to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen their top young arms of the past.

The most obvious change that new regime has made with their minor league pitchers is abolishing the tandem-starter system implemented by former GM Dan O’Brien. For the past two seasons, the Reds have used eight starting pitchers paired with each other starting every fourth day at the Class A level.

“The idea was that you had more guys getting an opportunity to get a starting role, and you might be able to develop a guy a little better that way,” assistant farm director Grant Griesser said. “We (now) feel we are better suited to target five guys at the A ball levels and allow them to be starters and allow them to get into a starter’s routine. We feel that is going to help their development more than (tandem starters).”

Triple Threat

A major test case will be Dayton, their Midwest League affiliate, as the Dragons will feature three of the Reds’ top 30 prospects in lefthanders Travis Wood (No. 3) and Philippe Valiquette (No. 20) and righthander Zach Ward (No. 13).

Wood burst onto the prospect scene last year with a dominant debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast and Pioneer leagues. A second-round pick in June out of Bryant High in Alexander, Ark., Wood already possesses a plus-plus change and a fastball that sits in the low 90s. Like most young pitchers, it is the third pitch that has proven elusive thus far, and his curveball has a long way to go.

Valiquette was a seventh-rounder in 2004 out of Edouard Montpetit High in Montreal who can touch 95 mph with his fastball. Due to his Canadian pedigree, the 19-year-old is raw, and it showed in his pro debut as he walked 54 hitters in 85 innings between Dayton and Billings while posting a 6.33 ERA.

“A lot of guys when they are young don’t always get the results they want, but that doesn’t mean they are not developing; that doesn’t mean they are not learning about the game,” Griesser said. “A lefthander who can throw hard like he can, there are just not a ton of them out there, so we are excited about him.”

Like Wood, Ward was drafted in 2005 but in the third round. The righthander out of Gardner-Webb pitched in instructional league only after signing last summer, so Dayton will be his pro debut. Ward possesses a low- to mid-90s fastball and a plus slider, but there are questions about his unrefined mechanics. He tends to just rear back and fire while also short-arming the ball.

“These guys when they come to us that have had success in the past, I think it is the wrong thing to do to try and overhaul somebody it terms of his mechanics and arm action” Griesser said. “Down the road sometime, if there are some major adjustments that need to be made, then we will cross that bridge when we come to it. For now you let a guy go and do his thing, so to speak.”

Different Pitchers, Different Plans

Beyond simply dropping the tandem starters, the Reds are hoping they have learned from their mistakes in the past and can avoid them with this group of arms, along with No. 1 prospect Homer Bailey and the other pitchers in the system.

“The biggest thing is developing individual plans for them other than blanket policies, blanket pitch counts, blanket number of innings,” Griesser said. “To try and individualize it for each guy depending on his background: college, high school, age, usage the year before, body type--all those things need to go into account.

“The tandem starters were a blanket policy with blanket pitch counts, the whole deal. We need to be more individual with that.”

New farm director Johnny Almaraz and pitching coordinator Mack Jenkins will be developing pitching programs for each pitcher that address their individual needs. Dayton will be an ideal laboratory as it will feature Wood, the dominant high schooler, Valiquette, the raw cold-weather product, and Ward, the experienced college arm.

“The three players you mentioned come from varied backgrounds,” Jenkins said via e-mail. “It is hard to get a player to go where we want him to go without knowing where he has been.

“Ward and Wood are in their first spring training in 2006 and their throwing plan was slightly different. Wood has a simple delivery and with the great changeup he possesses, he uses less effort than most pitchers. We go slowly with (Valiquette), making sure his workload is appropriate and has plenty of recovery time. When he arrived in Florida, it was his first time throwing outside all spring.”

So the Reds will keep trying to develop their own pitching. Dayton is only one step in the organization’s new approach.

“We want the Reds’ minor league pitchers to be the most educated, most prepared, most focused players on the field,” Jenkins said, “wherever they may toe the rubber.”



Midwest Harvest

• In what has become an annual rite of spring, the Peoria Chiefs planted palm trees at O’Brien Field. On April 3, the Chiefs planted the nine Queens Palms that were delivered from Florida in the berms in left field and left-center. The Chiefs started the tradition of Palm Trees in Peoria when the stadium opened on May 24, 2002, with 20 trees both inside and outside the stadium. They began using Queens Palms in 2003 because they were better equipped to cope with the climate changes of central Illinois.

• The Michigan Baseball Foundation has hired Paul Barbeau as president and general manager of the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays. After this season, the team will relocate from Battle Creek to Midland, Mich. Prior to joining Southwest Michigan, the 33-year-old Barbeau spent the last 11 years with Spokane of the short-season Northwest League, the last eight as vice president and GM.

Greg Vaughn fans should circle August 20 on their calendar. On that day, the Beloit Snappers will be giving away bobbleheads to honor the former Brewers slugger who played in Beloit in 1987 and hit .305-33-105. Bill Hall fans should circle July 16. The Brewers utilityman played in Beloit in 2000, though his stint there was less distinguished then Vaughn’s as he hit .262-3-41.

Sallymanders

• The West Virginia Power went 60-78 in their first season as a Brewers affiliate in 2005, but they should be better equipped for the 2006 campaign. Catcher Angel Salome returns to the Power after finishing the season there last year and will be joined by prospects such as righthander Will Inman, the organization’s No. 11 prospect. Inman played a key role in helping Rookie-level Helena post the best record in the Pioneer League last season. Other members of the Brewers’ top 30 on the Power roster include third baseman Mat Gamel (No. 26), outfielder Lorenzo Cain (27) and righthander Kevin Roberts (29).

• The Red Sox and Greenville Drive agreed to a two-year player-development contract extension, which means the two will be affiliated at least through the 2008 season. Last year was the first season of affiliation between the two clubs. Greenville’s new park, opening this season, is a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park.

• Asheville was scrambling to get its ballpark improvements finished before Opening Day. Palace Sports & Entertainment, who bought the club last year, gave McCormick Field $600,000 worth of renovations. These renovations include a VIP terrace down the right-field line, a picnic area down the left-field line and a new scoreboard. The city, which owns the field, constructed a new outfield wall.