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Hoppers' rotation well-stocked

Four Greensboro starters were Marlins' first-round picks in '05

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com




I spent much of this offseason watching in fascination and, frankly, awe as the Florida Marlins -- in fire sale mode -- pulled off trade after trade after trade, amassing what has to be the best stockpile of talent in the Minors.

Sure, at 9-22, there might be a lot of disgruntled Marlins' fans out there. I can sympathize that they may not have been as impressed as I was by what was perceived (understandably) as the biggest dismantling of a team since ... well ... the last time the Marlins unloaded their best players in a fire sale.


But that said, I was amazed by how well the Florida front office seemed to virtually cherry pick the ripest, juiciest prospects from each organization it traded with when it could easily have been at a dealing disadvantage.


Bringing in talented young players such as pitchers Yusmeiro Petit, Anibal Sanchez, Gaby Hernandez, Renyel Pinto, Ricky Nolasco and Travis Bowyer as well as up-and-coming hitters such as Hanley Ramirez and Mike Jacobs among others has, in my opinion, taken Florida from an organization that ranked somewhere in the bottom half of the pack in 2005 to the most loaded system in the game right now.


But lost in the ballyhoo of all those deals may have been the fact that the Marlins have been doing some fine "grow your own" development as well. Case in point: five first-round picks in the 2005 draft, all of which were used on pitchers.


This year, four of them comprise 80 percent of the starting rotation at Greensboro of the Class A South Atlantic League: Chris Volstad, Aaron Thompson, Ryan Tucker and Sean West (the fifth member of that first-round class, Jacob Marceaux, was at Advanced Class A Jupiter).


If there is another Minor League rotation with four first-rounders in it, no less four first-rounders from less than a year ago, please let me know, because I can't think of one.


So Grasshoppers pitching coach Steve Foster and manager Brandon Hyde can be forgiven if they feel a little trepidatious, sort of like they've been hired to guard a Brinks Truck with four bags of gold in the back.


"After the draft, all offseason I pretty much knew what was going to be coming here and, in all honesty, it cost me some sleepless nights," Foster said. "This has to be considered one of the best staffs in Minor League baseball as far as prospect status, so it's a joy, but there is a lot of responsibility that comes with it."


The four pitchers, all 19, started their pro careers in the complex-level Gulf Coast League last summer and all finished the year at short-season Jamestown. Now they are together again in Greensboro.


"I'll tell you what, it's four really special arms, but they're all very different in the way they pitch," said Hyde. "They try to outdo each other every time they go out there and it makes for a competitive atmosphere."


It's a friendly competition though, as the four are close friends off the mound.


While all four are a ways away from the Majors, it's Volstad, the 16th overall pick last summer, who is considered the closest, thanks to his unusual poise and command for a teenager.


The 6-foot-7 right-hander was off to a 4-2 start for the Hoppers with a 4.01 ERA in seven starts, having walked seven and struck out 28 in 42 2/3 innings. Throwing a sinking fastball in the low 90s as well as a curveball and changeup, scouts rave about his maturity and composure as well as his easy delivery and good mechanics.


"He's the closest [to the Majors] because of his demeanor and maturity, his knowledge of how to set up hitters and put them away, how to preserve his out pitch until later in the game, things that a 19-year-old usually doesn't get no matter how many times you tell him," Foster said. "With him, it's already clicked."


Thompson, a left-hander, was 1-2 with a 4.26 ERA, striking out 30 while walking seven in 31 2/3 innings. He'd been compared to Tom Glavine for his out pitch, a "dead fish" changeup, which virtually disappears at the plate. (As an added bonus from my perspective, I learned that Thompson was not only the Lamar University batboy as a kid, but he grew up with the family of one of my very favorite players, former Lamar star Kevin Millar).


Tucker, a right-hander, has the best fastball of the bunch, a true flamethrower, and was working on his secondary pitches to help offset that heat. More of a raw product than the others, Hyde described him as "high velocity with a big arm." Thus far, he was 0-3 with a 4.82 ERA and had struck out 31 but walked 19 in 28 innings. His fastball had been clocked in excess of 95 mph.


Finally, we have southpaw West, who went on the DL with a sore shoulder right after tossing six shutout innings in his first start. He just returned to the rotation this week with three more scoreless innings. At 6-foot-8, he is literally and figuratively a high-ceiling pitcher with late life on his fastball.


"He throws in the low 90s with all kinds of movement and a hard slider, attacking the hitters," Hyde said.


Equally impressed by the quartet has been Hoppers first baseman/catcher Gaby Sanchez.


"In my opinion, it's hard to see how any of them ever get hit," said Sanchez, who was particularly impressed with Volstad. "To me, he's already a Major League pitcher."


While Hyde is their manager, Foster is their coach/mentor/protector/teacher. And talking to him in the dugout in Greensboro last week, he spoke with such sincerity, I could see immediately why the Marlins felt so comfortable putting these prospects in his hands.


"A key for any coach is The Key, finding what opens each of them up, to help them develop to be a Major Leaguer," he explained. "What makes this group unique to me is their passion, and I commend our scouting staff because that's hard to find. A lot of people can find velocity, because a radar gun shows it. People can find a breaking ball because it's visual. But you can't see beneath the breastplate of a person to see if they truly have passion. It's hard to unearth.


"And the more I get to spend time with these kids the Marlins drafted, the more I'm in awe to see what they got," he said. "Four 19-year-old pitchers who have passion and good arms."


Since the Marlins have no expectations of immediate success at the Major League level, they can afford to bring along their prospects from every level at their own rate.


"They don't have to rush the kids," Foster said. "But they're all good enough that they may rush themselves."

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