AFL Road Trip: Marlins’ West Finds A Challenge In Arizona

MESA, Ariz. — He could be in Hawaii right now, hanging out on the beach when he isn’t at the ballpark, or maybe even grabbing a surfboard and testing his mettle on the waves as they rolled in from the Pacific.

Instead, Marlins lanky lefthander Sean West passed on the palm trees and postcard-perfect sunsets of the islands and chose to spend a couple of months around the dust, sand and menacing cactus in the desert southwest.

If some think he is nuts, so be it. The Arizona Fall League has proven to be a finishing school for minor leaguers and West, a first-round supplemental pick in 2005, wanted to challenge himself. That despite having spent all this past summer with high Class A Jupiter in the Florida State League.

“I didn’t want to go to Hawaii,” West said Wednesday. “It has beautiful scenery and all. But I’ve faced those hitters already. Coming here, I knew I’d have to bear down.”

Finally free of problematic blisters on his pitching hand, West rallied from a month-long absence this season, positioning himself for the heady jump to Double-A Carolina next spring.

However, he is finding that hitters here in the Arizona Fall League to be much more disciplined, a scenario that has created a valuable learning experience that could help shape West in Double-A ball, arguably the proving ground of the minor leagues.

Through four starts covering 12 innings for the Mesa Solar Sox, he is 1-1, 6.75 with 10 strikeouts but also eight walks, 13 hits and 10 runs, nine earned.

But …

“I’m learning how to pitch,” West said. “I have to throw offspeed pitches in fastball counts. And I’m trying to pitch inside more. This year in high Class A you got away with the fastball. That doesn’t work here. I’ve given up a few gappers, but I’m learning how to pitch.”

That the AFL is further educating West should be more comforting to the Marlins, who signed him for $775,000 out of a Shreveport, La., high school—who doesn’t love a hard-throwing, 6-foot-8 lefthander?—but had to shut him down ahead of the 2007 season so that he could undergo labrum surgery.

His return this season, coupled with success as he finished 6-5, 2.41 with 92 strikeouts in almost 101 innings in Jupiter, signaled that West could be valuable next season, particularly in a pinch much the way the Marlins summoned Chris Volstad to the majors straight from Double-A Carolina.

Even better for the Marlins, there are no more worries about the blisters—West fixed the problem by urinating on his hand for a week, hardening the skin—and now the sole focus centers on developing him as a complete pitcher.

He’s abandoned his get-over slower slider in favor of the hard slider and is eagerly learning how and when to employ a changeup.

Ray Burris, the Tigers’ pitching coach at Double-A who is mentoring Mesa’s pitchers, has emphasized throwing inside and wants to see West repeat his delivery more.

“A pitcher is someone who is going to use his defense, by understanding how to keep the ball down and attacking the strike zone,” Burris said. “A thrower is going to live on velocity only. (West) can be both. But I think when he understands the two compliment each other, he’ll attack the zone and get better results.

“He has the stuff to be overpowering. But when you’re trying to be overpowering from a thrower’s standpoint, your pitches are up.”

Fortunately, West is soaking up the advice, so much so that he plans to stay in the Phoenix area the rest of the winter and train at the Athletes’ Performance Institute in Tempe.

“In Double-A and Triple-A ball, you have to have the ability to throw your offspeed for strikes anytime in the count,” West said. “Just having the confidence to throw that pitch will make a difference.

“Hopefully I can jump (to the majors) next year,” West added. “You’re just a few good outings from the big leagues in this organization. But there is a ton of talented guys that are probably a year or two away.”