Rays' Pitching Pipeline Extends To Bowling Green

The Rays develop pitchers so efficiently that it seems almost like an aberration when a young Tampa Bay hurler doesn't pan out. They've endured their share of flameouts, just like any organization, but the big league rotation alone is proof of their player-development prowess.

Tampa Bay plucked Wade Davis and James Shields from the high school ranks and snagged Jeff Niemann and David Price from big-time college programs. They make up four-fifths of the rotation, while Matt Garza accounts for the fifth. That he is, arguably, the best of the bunch speaks well for the Rays' shrewd eye for acquiring pro talent.

With that much depth at the big league level, one might assume that the pitching pipeline would be dry, or at least getting there. Not so. The organization has at each of its four full-season classifications at least one of that level's finest young arms.

Tampa Bay has righthander Jeremy Hellickson stashed with Triple-A Durham, ready at the first sign of trouble. At Double-A Montgomery, the organization has lefty Alex Torres, who was part of the bounty for Scott Kazmir, himself a trade acquisition. Righthander Nick Barnese and power lefty Matt Moore both occupy spots in the high Class A Charlotte rotation. Last year, Moore led the minor leagues in strikeouts per nine innings and ranks fourth so far this year at 13.1.

All this brings us to the topic of today's Prospect Bulletin: Alexander Colome and Wilking Rodriguez, a pair of hard-throwing righthanders who take their turns in the low Class A Bowling Green rotation.

Colome ranked as the top pitching prospect last year in the short-season New York-Penn League. The 21-year-old native of the Dominican Republic is a nephew of Mariners reliever Jesus Colome. "He's come through the system with a lot of fanfare, so the element of surprise is not there," said Colome's pitching coach RC Lichtenstein. "I hadn't had a chance to see him much before this year, but everybody in the organization was quick to give me a rundown."

Rodriguez pulled a similar trick in the Rookie-level Appalachian League a year ago, seemingly coming out of nowhere to rank a hair behind the Braves' Julio Teheran among pitching prospects. The 20-year-old stands as the crown jewel of the organization's Venezuelan development program, which kicked into high gear in 2007 with the establishment of a new academy.

"I saw (Rodriguez) in Venezuela back in '07 and I loved him back then," Lichtenstein said. "He's made a ton of progress down the line. He's a marvelous kid and a tremendous young arm. He's got a great ability to process and adjust, and a will to get better. I saw him three years ago as a 17-year-old and was blown away, so his emergence is not even a little bit of surprise to me."

This season, Colome and Rodriguez have combined to make 10 starts for Bowling Green, during which they've registered a 3.07 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP and more than five times as many strikeouts as walks. Yet, the Hot Rods are off to a miserable 5-19 start, giving them the worst record in the Midwest League. They're the only MWL outfit to average fewer than three runs scored per game, and the inexperienced pitching staff (average age: 21.2) has allowed nearly five runs per game, ranking them squarely in the bottom quarter of the 16-team league.

Led by Colome and Rodriguez, the young Bowling Green pitchers, especially lefty Kyle Lobstein and righthander Jason McEachern, figure to improve as they gain experience. The staff already ranks third in the MWL with a 2.8 strikeout-to-walk mark, and they have allowed a below-average number of home runs.

Lichtenstein explained the Rays' development philosophy at the low Class A level. "The basic things we're trying to pound away are fastball command down in zone, using your changeup and cleaning up your breaking ball," he said. "You're going to get hit with your fastball occasionally, but if it's good enough, we want you to execute it and not always go to offspeed to get outs. We tell them, 'We want you to develop your stuff to get big leaguers out, not to be good in A-ball.' "

As good as they've been this season, Colome and Rodriguez were doing just that.

Regarding Rodriguez, Lichtenstein said: "He's got a power fastball, sitting 92-93 (mph) and touching 96, even in the cold weather we've had. He pounds the ball down in the zone, and he's got a really good breaking ball, a 12-to-6 type. But maybe most exciting is that he's developing a feel for his changeup—it's got some good sink, and he sells the arm speed.

"He just needs reps because he's as exciting as anything, stuff wise."

In 28 innings of work, Rodriguez had notched 25 strikeouts to go with six walks and two home runs allowed. His record stood at 1-1, 3.21 through five starts.

"He gave up five runs in the first inning of his first start, but after that he settled in," Lichtenstein said. "And that's what I like to see. It was his ability to settle in and slow the game down that showed me he's really advanced."

Furthering his claim, Lichtenstein added, "He's worked hard with his English, and he keeps getting better because he knows the importance of understanding. He's not out there just nodding his head—he really wants to understand what we're telling him."

Colome's numbers pop off the page—32 strikeouts, five walks and two homers allowed in 27 2/3 innings. He's gone 0-2, 2.93 in five starts and ranks third in the MWL in strikeouts, fourth with 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and third with 8.5 baserunners per nine.

"He's got a power fastball, 93-94 (mph), touches 95, and we think there's going to be more as summer goes along," Lichtenstein said. "Like Rodriguez, he's got the power breaking ball (also a curveball). They both have power arms and can spin the ball a bit."

Though his stuff may be more electric at the moment, Colome has one obvious area for improvement. "His changeup is coming along, but it's not as advanced as Rodriguez's," Lichtenstein said. "He's got to soften it up, but he's showing me the confidence to use it.

"Sometimes when you have the fastball and breaking ball to strike batters out—two pitches to put people away—you might lack the ability to buy into using the changeup. But we've got to get our pitchers ready to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox, not Low-A hitters. You've got to develop that changeup and get comfortable throwing it now."