AFL Notebook: Jansen Gives Dodgers New Conversion Project

GLENDALE, Ariz.—The Dodgers have shown a knack over the years for taking prospects and moving them to catcher. Russell Martin is the most successful example, a third baseman who moved behind the plate in 2003. Carlos Santana, traded to the Indians last year for Casey Blake, is another third baseman-turned-catcher and one of the game’s elite prospects. Tony Delmonico and Lucas May, both still in the Dodgers farm system, began their careers in the infield before converting to catcher.

With 22-year-old Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers have another conversion project on their hands. Only this time, the Dodgers are moving a player off the catching position and putting him on the mound.  

When Jansen was an amateur in Curacao, some international scouts preferred him as a pitcher because of his arm strength and questionable hitting ability. Jansen debuted in 2005, but after four seasons in Rookie ball and low Class A Great Lakes coming into this season, Jansen had hit just .234/.319/.346 in 224 games.

After struggling to hit again this year through June, Jansen hung up his catching gear and prepared to make the switch to pitching. One month later, Jansen made his pitching debut with high Class A Inland Empire, where he stuck out 19 batters and walked 11 in 11 1/3 innings. Pitching for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League, Jansen showed one of the league’s most powerful arms with a fastball that sits at 95 mph.

"When they told me that he was coming here and he was a converted guy, I was like, ‘Oh, no,’ " Saguaros pitching coach Fred Dabney said. "I know he hasn’t been pitching very long, but I tell you what, I was very surprised and pleased. He commands the ball a lot better than what I expected. Obviously the tools and the ability is there and he’s got to polish some things up—little things—but he’s fun to work with. He’s a bright spot. I’m glad they put him on the mound."

Jansen only appeared in five games for the Saguaros, and in 4 2/3 innings he struck out nine of the 23 batters he faced and walked three. Facing the Peoria Saguaros on Nov. 10 for one inning, Jansen’s fastball ranged from 94-96. He threw his 79-82 mph breaking ball four times, all strikes, including two swinging strikes against Reds outfielder Chris Heisey. Jansen showed the same fastball velocity on Nov. 13, also mixing in a mid-80s changeup, though he’s still refining both of his secondary offerings.

"He’s got pretty good feel for his slider," said Dabney, the Brewers’ high Class A Brevard County pitching coach. "His changeup’s coming around but in time, when he gets to throw more innings, he’ll develop those pitches. He’s got a good feel for what he’s doing—that’s the key."

New team, same stuff: Rangers righthander Danny Gutierrez spent most of the 2009 season on the disabled list, but he has shown two major league-quality pitches when healthy. Gutierrez, who the Rangers picked up from the Royals in September in the deal that sent catcher Manny Pina and outfielder Tim Smith to the Royals, showed a 90-94 mph fastball and a big-breaking 71-75 mph curveball in the AFL.

“He can really command his fastball," said Surprise pitching coach Tom Phelps, the Yankees’ pitching coach at Double-A Trenton this season. "He’s about as good as anybody here at commanding his fastball, and he knows how to change speeds. His curveball’s a good change of speed from his fastball—it really slows the hitters down. He’s a guy who could develop his changeup a little bit more and learn how to use it, but his fastball’s so good and he can command it so well, that’s how he attacks hitters.”

Mariners have plenty of relief: The Mariners sent three relievers with intriguing stuff and command issues to pitch for the Javelinas. Twenty-year-old righthander Phillippe Aumont pitched at 92-95 mph on Nov. 12 (he topped out at 98 mph during the regular season) with an 83-84 mph splitter that was more impressive than his mid-70s curveball. Listed at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, Aumont throws across his body and has worked to keep his arm slot up to somewhere between three-quarters and a high three-quarters slot.

"The biggest thing is to make sure that he has a consistent arm slot that the Mariners want him at," Dabney said. "We’re working on that, obviously getting some movement on his fastball. He’s got a sharp breaking ball, his split’s pretty tight. With his height and build, the biggest thing mechanically for him is to get over his front side. As far as hitters not seeing him, if he gets over his front side, he’s releasing the ball a little bit closer to the plate, so that 94, 97 plays like it’s 98, 99, as opposed to him not getting over his front side. The biggest thing with him mechanically is getting over his front side and movement on his fastball."

One year after selecting Aumont with their first-round pick, the Mariners used their 2008 first-round selection to take righthander Josh Fields. A senior from Georgia, Fields waited until this year to sign, then mixed poor performance with time on the disabled list this year in the Double-A Southern League. 

Pitching on Nov. 14, Fields’ showed off a 91-94 mph fastball and a sharp-breaking curveball with late bite in the high-70s. Fields needs to make major strides with his control, and might always struggle to do so with his max-effort mechanics.

"Everything he does is max-effort obviously and he’s deceptive, he’s hard to see," Dabney said. "With those two pitches they’re hard to hit and they don’t take very good swings off of him. With him it’s just command. If he commands those two pitches you’re talking a quality bullpen guy in the big leagues, a late-inning guy."

Righthander Anthony Varvaro doesn’t have the first-round pedigree, but he showed two above-average pitches with his fastball and curveball. Varvaro, who also started for the Javelinas in the AFL championship game, pitched at 91-93 and touched 95 with his fastball on Nov. 12. He also showed a plus curveball at 78-79 mph and an 85-86 mph changeup that is still a work in progress.

Varvaro, a 12th-round pick out of St. John’s in 2005, is still working to get his command in order after missing most of the 2006 season following Tommy John surgery. Varvaro, who turned 25 in October, posted a 63-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 54 1/3 Double-A innings this season, though he walked just three of the 55 batters he faced in the AFL.

"Delivery-wise," Dabney said, "his hand separation, he needs to make sure he has consistent hand separation and mixes in his third-best pitch, his changeup. It’s a big league fastball and a big league curveball, but he needs that third pitch so he’s been working on his changeup mostly. He’s throwing more changeups now to get more consistent with his third pitch because he’s going to need that."

The slow road back: Nearly every batted ball was scorched against Mark Rogers on Nov. 13, a common event for the Brewers 23-year-old righthander in the AFL. After a solid year in the high Class A Florida State League, Rogers allowed 18 runs in 10 2/3 innings in the AFL, walking nine and striking out seven. Rogers threw 92-94 mph and touched 95 against the Rafters, mixing in a hard slider in the mid-80s, a changeup with good sink and an occasional curve.

He throws across his body and is still working to improve his below-average command after missing the 2007 and 2008 seasons with a shoulder injury, but the 2004 first-round pick could be a solid reliever if everything clicks.

"Obviously guys here are working on things," Dabney said. "They want to have success while they’re working on them, but most importantly, they need to develop and do some things that, when they go to spring training next year, that are cleaned up and fixed . . . For the most part with Mark, it’s to be able to command the inner half, go in hard on hitters and be able to double up in for strikes. That’s basically what he’s here working on, and obviously being here with some of the better hitters sometimes when you’re out there working on things you don’t quite have the success that you have during the season. Our biggest thing is for him to clean some things up and be ready for spring training, and he’s working on that."