Spring Surprise

Mariners shift '07 first-rounder Phillippe Aumont to bullpen

At the dawn of spring training, the Mariners fully intended to ship Phillippe Aumont to high Class A High Desert with the assignment of working him within the framework of a five-man rotation and enhancing his cache of pitches.

Well, talk about tearing up the script.

In a move surprising for its timing and heavy financial impact, the Mariners late in camp re-drew plans for their 2007 top pick and did so with an eye toward an expeditious path to the majors.

Instead of the burly righthander learning the nuances of pitching in a rotation, the Mariners unexpectedly decided to turn him into a back-of-the-bullpen anchor. This after Aumont's brief but dominating showing in the World Baseball Classic prompted first-year Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and other personnel to reconsider his true value.

"He just might have that something that has what it takes to be in that role," Zduriencik said.

A key factor became the righthander's aggressive nature—ideal, Zduriencik said, for a 6-foot-7, 225-pounder who regularly cranks up his fastball into the mid-90s and pounds the bottom of the zone with it.

However, Zduriencik left open the possibility that the Mariners could re-visit Aumont as a starter, saying, "If this isn't the right thing, then we'll circle the wagons."

Z's Touch

The reversal marks the third time a Mariners first-round arm has been moved to a bullpen role, the others being righthanders Brandon Morrow (2006) and Josh Fields (2008), who are now in Seattle and at Double-A West Tenn, respectively.

Yet it also comes at a time when Seattle could find itself thin in starting pitching in the near future.

Outside of Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard, the Mariners' rotation is banking on Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva and Ryan Rowland-Smith. Washburn is in the final year of his contract and is a disappointing  23-43, 4.54 in the prior three seasons. Silva, who before 2008 snagged a four-year, $48 million contract, was 4-15, 6.46 last year, his first in Seattle.

The farm system also saw a talent drain early in 2008 in acquiring Bedard, with part of the package sent to the Orioles including righthander Chris Tillman, now 21 and pitching in Triple-A. Two other notable arms in the Seattle system, Nicaraguan righthander Juan Ramirez and Dominican righthander Michael Pineda, still appear a few years away.

Overall, it's the situation that Zduriencik inherited last October when he left behind nine years as Brewers scouting director and replaced fired GM Bill Bavasi, whose regime drafted Morrow, Fields and Aumont.

But those who have worked with or have closely followed Zduriencik's career say they are not surprised in the GM's conviction to make this move, pointing out that his track record speaks for itself in the sense that he knows his personnel well.

For instance, in 2007 the Brewers took outfielder Matt LaPorta seventh overall. But given Milwaukee's heavy scouting influence in Canada, Zduriencik's scouting staff had tracked Aumont, a high school talent in Quebec.

"We'd all like to have 200-inning pitchers," Zduriencik said. "But if we can shorten the game, too, that's great."

For his part, Aumont cannot wait to work out of the bullpen, regardless of the hitter friendly reputation of the California League.

He was 4-4, 2.75 last season at low Class A Wisconsin, striking out 50 and issuing 19 walks in 56 innings.

But an elbow issue forced the Mariners to take a more cautious approach, and Aumont didn't turn to starting until well into his time there. He made 15 appearances, eight of them in the rotation.

"I think it's going to be the best route for me to get to the majors as soon as possible," Aumont said. "It doesn't matter to me, starting or relieving. I just want to get an opportunity in any role I can."

Gradual Steps

His introduction, however, to the role will be in gradual steps as High Desert plans to use Aumont in set-up situations in the season's first couple of weeks before handing over the closer's job full-time.

Marshaling him through the process is High Desert pitching coach Jaime Navarro, who pitched in the majors from 1989 to 2000.

Aumont will throw an inning, have the next day off, then throw again. Eventually, back-to-back days, followed by a day off, will become the norm.

"He needs to understand how his arm reacts," Navarro said. "He's got to get his feet wet and learn how tough it is, so he understands how to throw every other day instead of every five days."

Aumont's first two appearances reflected as much. The righthander needed only 13 pitches to work an inning in his season debut. Two days later,  he was erratic and exhausted 27 pitches.
His fastball registered 94-96 mph and his changeup was outstanding, with his breaking ball good enough to offer another nice change of pace at 80-82 mph.

"I'll tell you one thing—he's looking forward to it," Navarro said. "This kid is a horse and that's a good thing.

"His changeup, it's got great spin and it sinks, especially against lefties," Navarro added. "And he can throw it in to righthanders and it looks like a sinker. This guy, he's got all the big league tools. Right now, he's just trying to put it all together."

Not surprisingly, Aumont is eager for his new role, particularly after throwing an inning of relief for Team Canada in a loss to Team USA.

"It was a wonderful experience to be with big league guys and All-Stars," Aumont said. "It gave me a chance to see the approach guys take every night."

It also planted a seed in the minds of the Mariners. Upon returning from the WBC, key personnel met to review Aumont's path.

"I think the guys that saw him, they saw little pieces of what this could be," Zduriencik said. "Everything (was discussed) and it was, 'How does this guy fit?'

"In the primary case, when you look at how aggressive he is, and he's got size and he's got a great arm . . . Most guys want to develop starters. We all do. Mainly, we talked about the big picture. If this works, he could be a guy that could move real quick."

It'll be interesting to see the amount of time the Mariners will give Aumont to take flight. Zduriencik did not shoot down a question about re-training Aumont as a starter down the road. But he clearly wants to test-drive Aumont in a bullpen role.

"More than anything else," Zduriencik said, "let's see how this works out in the next month or so before we make any decisions.

"It's easy to get guys innings in the minor leagues," Zduriencik added. "But this particular guy in this particular case is unique. If we're right on this thing, then it's a good for him and for us."