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Hennessey's Turnaround Adds To Giants System

Prospect Pulse By John Manuel
July 26, 2004

The Giants have proved they know how to develop pitching.

Whether it's for trades or for sustaining the big league club's run of success, the ability to find power arms remains a strength of the organization under general manager Brian Sabean.

The obvious examples at the top of the farm system are Futures Gamers Merkin Valdez and Matt Cain, who ranked 1-2 in the Giants' Top 10 prospects in the offseason. But the organization has several other feel-good stories percolating up through the system, and none of them has overcome longer odds than Brad Hennessey.

The righthander, drafted in the first round in 2001 out of Youngstown State, has had his best year as pro so far this season, his first full season as a pro. Hennessey was a shortstop primarily in college until switching to the mound his junior year, and his quick, loose arm and athletic ability helped him pick up pitching quickly.

Hennessey threw 34 innings after signing in 2001, but missed all of 2002 after having surgery to remove a benign tumor in his upper back. The tumor returned a second time, and though it was not cancerous, Hennessey was set back again. He made just 15 starts last season at low Class A Hagerstown, going 3-9, 4.20. Giants officials tried to be positive, he said, telling him the 2003 season wasn't about results for him.

"It was like that for everyone else in the organization except me," Hennessey said. "I was still out there trying to compete, trying to win, but I guess I was trying to make more strides than I was able to. I've been able to be more about results this year."

That's because Hennessey has rediscovered the stuff that made him a first-rounder, and at age 24 is having a breakthrough season. He went 5-5, 3.56 at Double-A Norwich, gaining strength as the season wore on before earning a promotion to Triple-A Fresno. His first two starts for the Grizzlies were both gems, as he's given up only one run in his first 14 2/3 innings. He's allowed just eight hits and three walks while striking out six and earning two victories.

"I think I was getting to where I was throwing well in Norwich in my last few starts, and I've carried that over here with Fresno," Hennessey said. "Mechanically, I feel like I'm where I need to be. I'm staying on top of the ball and getting my pitches to be over two planes instead of one."

One Giants front office official said Hennessey's fastball velocity has returned to the 91-92 mph range, and that his slider has come back strong. The Giants had slapped a 75 grade on the slider (on the 20-80 scouting scale) back when Hennessey was drafted. "It's getting back to that level," the official said. "It's not quite back, but it's close."

Also coming on strong for the Giants is lefthander Pat Misch, the organization's seventh-round pick out of Western Michigan last season. Pushed to Norwich for his first full pro season, Misch has responded exceedingly well.

A four-pitch lefthander with a fringe-average fastball, Misch nonetheless never gives in to hitters, and Eastern Leaguers have not figured him out. He has won his last three decisions, two of them complete-game shutouts against New Britain and Bowie, to improve to 5-3, 2.56 overall. His 97-20 strikeout-walk ratio is actually misleading; it's 82-10 since Misch's poor start in April.

His ability to throw his changeup, curveball and slider anytime in the count explain his ability to miss bats. Misch has allowed just 102 hits in 123 innings (opponents are batting .224 against him) and has owned righthanded hitters, who are batting just .213 against him.

The Giants also have seen lefthander Jack Taschner have a healthy season on the mound, reaching Triple-A for the first time, while nondrafted free agent Jeremy Accardo, a righthander who, like Hennessey, was also primarily a shortstop in college, reached Double-A in his first pro season. With Jesse Foppert working his way back to health from Tommy John surgery--he started and threw one inning Sunday at high Class A San Jose--the organization is once again becoming deep in pitching.

Most of the credit should go to Dick Tidrow, the organization's scouting and farm director. Tidrow has overseen both departments as vice president of player personnel for six seasons now. If there's a pitcher making noise in the Giants organization, Tidrow was probably involved either in drafting the player or helping develop him.

"He's definitely hands-on," Hennessey said. "He gets out there and shows us what he feels will help or correct what you're doing. I remember one time he was using the broken end of some crutches to help show guys how to get the correct spin on a curveball.

"Bob Stanley was my pitching coach at Hagerstown last year and then again this year at Norwich, and I've worked with (roving instructor) Lee Smith some too. We've got some good people to go to when it comes to pitching."

Cormier Climbs The Ladder

If the Diamondbacks were in position to make a playoff run, righthander Lance Cormier would be an intriguing bargaining chip.

He's had success in the high minors, posting a combined 2.46 ERA in his first 113 innings between Double-A El Paso and Triple-A Tucson--both hitter's parks in hitter's leagues. He's just 23, and he's shown improvement in his third pro season.

But the Diamondbacks instead are ready to rebuild, meaning Cormier is getting a big league audition now. He got knocked around a bit Saturday in his second big league start, giving up five runs in six innings in a loss to the visiting Rockies, and has an ugly 14.73 ERA in two starts, having lasted just 7 1/3 innings.

Interim Arizona manager Al Pedrique, however, said Cormier will get more chances to show he belongs, telling him, "You are going to be here for a while. You're going to get the ball every fifth day."

Cormier has earned it with his performance this season. He has overcome the bias against short righthanders by controlling the one thing he could--how he competes and how he pitches.

"He was good for us here, and he's been good in Triple-A as well," said El Paso manager Scott Coolbaugh, for whom Cormier pitched 10 games (eight starts). "He really competes and is a workhorse kind of pitcher. He's knows situations, and he knows how to pitch."

Cormier had a stellar four-year college career at Alabama, leading the Crimson Tide in saves as a freshman as the team went to the College World Series. Switched to the rotation as a junior, he led Southeastern Conference starters in ERA in 2001 and won 20 games over his final two seasons. The Diamondbacks drafted the smallish 190-pounder--now listed at 6-foot-1, he was listed as 5-foot-10 at Alabama--in the fourth round in 2002.

Cormier is having his best season as a professional thanks to pinpoint control of his four-pitch repertoire and his ability to avoid home runs. He was 3-3, 2.68 since his promotion to Triple-A, after going 2-3, 2.29 at El Paso. He had a combined 34-95 walk-strikeout ratio in the minors, and most impressively had given up just three home runs all season--none with the Sidewinders.

"He's a command guy," Coolbaugh said. "He's got a couple of pretty good breaking balls, and he spots his fastball inside and outside. He really relies on his changeup as his out pitch. He's got a little more velocity than you would think on the fastball--he can touch 93 mph--so it makes his changeup more effective."

With the situation with the big league club's rotation in flux, Cormier's big league chance came sooner than expected. He has no one to blame for that other than himself and his own consistency.

"He's a fourth or fifth guy in a rotation for me," Coolbaugh said. "I think he has enough stuff to pitch in a big league rotation."

STRONG BEATS

The news on Jeff Allison, the Marlins' 2003 first-round pick, keeps getting worse. Police reports in Massachusetts indicate Allison spent three days in a hospital last week due to a heroin overdose. Lynn (Mass.) police Lt. John Scannell told the Salem (Mass.) News that Allison and a friend, Jimmy Leontakianakos, split a bag of heroin July 17. Leontakianakos told police he passed out in a car, according to the Associated Press, and when he woke up, he noticed Allison was having trouble breathing. He then drove Allison to Union Hospital in Lynn. Allison tested positive for heroin and was released from the hospital, police Lt. Tom Reddy told the AP.

Damon Oppenheimer doesn't expect the Yankees to change their philosophy now that he's been placed in charge of amateur scouting. Oppenheimer added amateur duties to his previous job as pro scouting director, while yielding the role of farm director. Baseball operations senior vice president Mark Newman has assumed those duties on an interim basis, and Oppenheimer said he expects the Yankees to hire a full-time farm director, though he didn't have a timetable.

Oppenheimer said the organization's first-round pick in 2004, prep righthander Philip Hughes, had some elbow soreness that had led the organization to stop him from throwing in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. "There's nothing wrong; there's no problem with it. We're just being cautious," Oppenheimer said. "We wanted to get him out there and get him on our throwing program, and he showed us good stuff."

The Brewers have a big league version of Terry Trofholz already in center fielder Scott Podsednik, and they think Trofholz could follow a similar path to the majors. It took Podsednik eight seasons to reach the majors, and they hope Trofholz, a 22nd-round pick last year out of Texas Christian, takes a slightly quicker route. "He's similar to Podsednik in that he's a speed guy who can hit," said assistant farm director Scott Martens, noting Trofholz' 39 steals in 48 attempts at low Class A Beloit. "With speed guys, it's harder to tell how quick they'll move." Trofholz was hitting .312-2-34, but had drawn just 21 walks and had 17 extra-base hits, giving him a more pedestrian .359 on-base percentage and .376 slugging percentage.

The Astros hope to have another winning college senior draftee on their hands in righthander D.J. Houlton, who at age 24 is again doing well in his second trip to the Double-A Texas League. Houlton, whose last start ended after one inning due to a rain delay, has won his last four decisions and is 3-0, 1.24 in July. Houlton is 8-3, 3.09 overall with a sterling 120-36 strikeout-walk ratio. He has average velocity on his fastball and a solid curveball and changeup, and a scout in the TL who's with an American League organization was impressed with his pitchability after a recent outing. "He's got a great feel for the ball," the scout said. "He throws three pitches that are average, but he moves them all around the strike zone. I like his chances."

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