ZEBULON, NC—For Reds righthander Daryl Thompson, being overlooked is nothing new. An eighth-round pick of the Expos in 2003, Thompson slipped into relative obscurity after posting a 5.08 ERA in his first full professional season in low Class A Savannah in 2004.
Things only got worse for Thompson the following year, when his season ended prematurely. His career changed irrevocably in July, 2005, when he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. That same month, the Nationals traded Thompson along with lefthander Bill Bray, righthander Gary Majewski and shortstop Royce Clayton and Brendan Harris to the Reds in exchange for outfielder Austin Kearns, shortstop Felipe Lopez and righthander Ryan Wagner.
"He was one of the guys who was basically, from my understanding, a throw-in," said Chris Bosio, Thompson's pitching coach at Double-A Chattanooga. "But he's turned out to be a very, very pleasant surprise I think for the organization. Somebody in our organization did their homework."
Thompson put together a healthy full season last year, posting a 0.96 ERA and a 24-2 K-BB ratio in 28 innings with low Class A Dayton, and then a 3.77 ERA and a 97-31 K-BB ratio in 105 innings with high Class A Sarasota. After ranking 18th among Reds prospects entering the season, Thompson missed the cut of the top 30 in the 2008 Prospect Handbook.
This year, the 22-year-old Thompson has increased his presence on the radars of scouts who have seen him pitch for Double-A Chattanooga. In 48 1/3 innings, has 49 strikeouts and 11 walks. His ERA is 1.28, which ranks third in the Southern League and fourth in all of Double-A.
"Daryl's a guy that fills up the strike zone," Bosio said. "He can pitch to both side of the plate. He can go below the zone, he can go above the zone and he can use both sides of the plate for his breaking ball."
Thompson's primary weapon was a 91-94 mph fastball that exploded out of his hand from his athletic delivery. Thompson commanded his fastball to both corners of the plate, though he lost some of his command in the sixth inning as his pitch count climbed into the 60s. Several hitters in the Carolina lineup didn't have the bat speed to catch up to Thompson's plus fastball, which touched 95 mph once, though it was a pitch up and way out of the strike zone.
"Most pitchers are going to work off their fastball," Bosio said. "The thing we've been working with Daryl as well as the rest of the guys is being able to hit all four quadrants. Realize his strength, where it is, and attacking that zone. Using his strengths and then trying to expose those weaknesses on the hitters, whatever those may be, but you're always going to pitch to the pitcher's strengths, and that's what Daryl does."
While Thompson threw his fastball 70 percent of the time, he mixed in three other pitches—a 68-70 mph curveball, a high-70s slider and an 81-82 mph changeup. Thompson also had a low- to mid-80s cutter last season, but he said that he has since scrapped the pitch to focus on the development of his slider.
Thompson's curveball was a slow bender that changed hitters' eye levels. Of the nine he threw, none of them missed any bats, though with the speed differential between his curve and his fastball, he was able to catch a couple of hitters off guard and throw it for a backdoor strike when he needed a strike.
His other breaking ball, the slider, had some depth but less velocity than one might expect given Thompson's arm speed and fastball velocity. He mixed his slider in more in the second and third times through the order, though like the curveball it also did not generate and swings-and-misses.
"He changes speeds on everything, it just depends on the situation," Bosio said. "There's hard and soft, he'll change his arm angle, change his grip a little bit. I think that's good about Daryl that he's willing to do is just try different things. Thus far he's been able to do that. He's not going to give you the same look twice. I think that makes any good pitcher, is don't be predictable. Our motto is any pitch at any time. At the big league level you have to do that but still pitch to your strengths and fill up the zone."
Thompson's changeup came in faster than both of his breaking balls. The pitch had occasional fade and drop. By Thompson's own admission, he has lacked feel for the pitch in his recent outings compared to earlier in the season. Thompson looked like he had studied the scouting reports of the Mudcats hitters—or at least logged a mental note of their tendencies after their previous outing.
Of the 13 changeups he threw, three went for swinging strikes—one to the opposing pitcher, lefthander Aaron Thompson, and one each to center fielder Cameron Maybin and first baseman Gaby Sanchez, both of whom have struggled to hit quality changeups this season.
"It's a go-to pitch," Bosio said of Thompson's changeup. "Again, any pitch at any time. Daryl doesn't show a lot of tendencies and that's one thing that we're trying to do with our pitching staff here."
To start the night, Thompson faced left fielder John Raynor, who struck out on five consecutive fastballs. Raynor whiffed at the first two strikes, then took strike three looking at a pitch on the outside corner. Raynor struggled all night trying to catch up to Thompson's fastballs, which generated four swings-and-misses against Raynor in all.
The next batter was Maybin, who took a fastball and a curveball to get ahead 2-0, then looked at a fastball on the outside corner. Though he was behind in the count, Thompson wisely threw Maybin an 82 mph changeup, and Maybin promptly grounded out to third base. Of the 10 pitches Thompson threw to Maybin, three were for changeups, including back-to-back changeups in Maybin's second at-bat in a 1-2 count (a ball low) and then again on the next pitch for strike three swinging.
Carolina's No. 3 hitter, second baseman Chris Coghlan, gave Thompson more trouble than any other hitter all night, going 1-for-1 with a single and two walks. The supremely selective Coghlan saw 17 pitches in three plate appearances against Thompson, including a seven-pitch walk in his first trip. After Coghlan took a 94 mph fastball for ball one, Thompson got a pair of called strikes on another 94 mph fastball and a backdoor 70 mph curveball. Coghlan, who rarely swings at a pitch on the corners before being in a two-strike count, fouled off the next pitch and then took three fastballs away to draw the walk.
Thompson then got behind Sanchez 3-0, firing a 95 mph fastball up and way out of the zone, followed by a changeup low and a fastball inside. Thompson challenged Sanchez with two more fastballs, the first of which Sanchez fouled off before looping a lazy fly ball to center field.
"Daryl was a guy I was made aware of before I got out here, being a roster guy at big league camp," said Bosio, who is in his first year with the Reds. "I had not seen him pitch at all until he got sent down from big league camp. The immediate impression I got from Daryl was a guy who went about his business, very efficient, hard-working kid. Very quiet, but his demeanor is how he pitches. He goes about his business. He's not a real flamboyant guy on the mound. He gets after it."
After looking like he was trying to overthrow in the first inning, Thompson settled down and looked more in command through the next few frames.
After needing just nine pitches to get through the second inning and striking out Aaron Thompson to start the third inning, Thompson again went after Raynor with four straight fastballs. Ahead of Raynor 1-2, Thompson threw a 78 mph slider that Raynor fouled off, and then hung a curveball that Raynor hit to center field but resulted in a putout. Thompson struck out Maybin on a changeup to end the inning.
Thompson started the third inning by walking Coghlan on a curveball-changeup-fastball-fastball sequence, but needed just 10 more pitches to retire the next three hitters. After a seven-pitch fifth inning, Thompson had thrown 67 pitches.
"He's been a guy who's been a No. 1 guy for us. He's a horse," Bosio said. "He leads by example—he's not a real vocal guy, but a lot of times your best leaders are guys who just get after it and work hard, not necessarily the yellers and screamers. In a lot of ways he reminds me of Robin Yount, how Robin used to go about his business when he was a teammate of mine in Milwaukee. Daryl's an extremely hard worker, and you're only going to get out of this game what you put in. Daryl's definitely put a lot into being prepared, going over scouting reports and at the same time still utilizing his strengths as a pitcher that he knows."
However, Thompson got into some trouble in the sixth inning. His command wavered, he left a few too many pitches up in the zone and his curveball lost some of its shape. But Thompson bore down when he needed to and escaped the inning having allowed just one run, which was unearned.
After getting Raynor to swing and miss a fastball, Thompson walked him on four straight pitches. Maybin followed with a strong line drive to center field, but center fielder Jerry Gil didn't have to move far to his left to make the catch. Coghlan then locked in with another battle with Thompson, seeing five pitches to get to a 2-2 count before sending a line-drive single the opposite way for a single to left field.
With runners on first and second, Thompson made a mistake by throwing a fastball to Sanchez on the first pitch, a mistake made worse because he left the pitch up in the zone. Sanchez roped the pitch to left field, where Cody Strait somehow let the ball go by him despite being in perfect position to make the catch. Sanchez reached on Strait's error as Raynor came around to score and Coghlan advanced to second.
Now at 80 pitches, Thompson needed eight pitches before he struck out third baseman Lee Mitchell on a fastball. Shortstop Manuel Mayorson made Thompson labor again as he drew a six-pitch walk, with three of the balls left high above the strike zone to load the bases.
After a visit to the mound from Bosio, Thompson locked in against catcher Alberto Concepcion, who fouled off a changeup and a fastball before whiffing at a fastball for the strikeout on Thompson's last pitch of the night. The three-pitch strikeout was crucial for Thompson, who ended up throwing 30 pitches in the sixth inning. He left the game after throwing 97 pitches.
"I've talked at length to (farm director) Terry Reynolds and (pitching coordinator) Mack Jenkins about Daryl," Bosio said. "All of our pitchers are on pitch counts, and Daryl has met or just about met or reached that pitch limit, so there are some boundaries there, but we also want to stretch these kids out because you want to know have down the road.
"If the big league club needs a spot start, (pitching coach) Dick Pole and (manager) Dusty Baker gotta know if this guy can go 105, 110 pitches if needed to get into the seventh inning. By having a bunch of 85-, 90-pitch pitchers—and a lot of times if there's a couple walks, an error or two is made—it's going to be added to the pitch count. We don't want five-inning pitchers, we're not trying to breed that—no organization is."
• Chattanooga righthander Sam LeCure, who turned 24 earlier in the month, had his best outing of the year on Saturday, tossing five scoreless innings with no walks and seven strikeouts.
LeCure worked almost exclusively off of two pitches—an 87-90 mph fastball and a 77-79 mph slider. Of his 81 pitches, I identified pitch types for 77 of them—52 fastballs, 21 sliders and just four changeups for a 68/27/5 percentage breakdown. While he sat at 90-91 mph and touched 92-93 occasionally in 2006, LeCure has worked in the high-80s since last season.
Despite having below-average fastball velocity, LeCure had success when he commanded his fastball and when he mixed his locations to catch hitters off guard. Including batted balls, LeCure threw 12 of his 22 sliders for strikes, including five swings-and-misses. The slider was a solid pitch at times, but it had below-average velocity and usually had a slurvy break .
A 6-foot, 192 pounds, LeCure was a two-pitch pitcher with a fringy fastball and without an above-average secondary, profiling as a middle innings reliever at best who will have to optimally mix his pitch sequences and location to be successful.
• Chattanooga righthanded reliever Josh Roenicke came into the game in the ninth inning in the first two games of the series, mixing a 92-94 mph fastball and breaking ball.
Roenicke is a former outfielder, which was evident from his delivery. His arm action was very short and his elbow was a bit high in the back. One scout who watched Roenicke pitch this year pointed out that his arm action was similar to what you would normally see from a catcher, whose the goal is to minimize both release time and movement on the baseball. He also did not generate much extension out front in his delivery. Roenicke pitched well in the first game, generating swings and misses with his fastball, but in the second game he gave up a walk-off home run to Carolina catcher Brett Hayes.