The Dodgers held a somewhat secretive pitching minicamp at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona last week, a little more than a week before pitchers and catchers are set to report to camp. But the biggest news to come out of the camp revolves around two pitchers with new roles in relief: Pedro Baez and Chris Withrow.
Baez, who turns 25 in March, has never advanced past Double-A and is a career .247/.308/.391 hitter in the minors, including a .354 slugging percentage in 117 games with Chattanooga. His conversion to the mound happened late in 2012, but he is drawing comparisons to another former Dodgers prospect with a strong arm who couldn't hit, Kenley Jansen.
"They put him on the mound in instructional league and that fastball is really strong," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. "You talk about Kenley when you see the ball come out of his hand. He hasn't been overwhelmed by thinking too much about pitching. He just sees the glove and throws it and that's kind of refreshing."
Before the 2012 season, our own Brandon Lennox ranked Baez as the 47th best prospect in the Dodgers' system, and his potential conversion to the mound figured prominently in Baez getting ranked that high.
"We all know that he Baez has a great arm which is why we always talk about him as a potential pitcher, with his throws across the infield being clocked at 94 mph," Lennox wrote in February 2012, "Still just 24 years old, he could probably make the conversion over the next year and be ready to help the big league club by 2013 if he catches on quickly enough."
Just as it was unfair to compare Takashi Saito to Eric Gagne, or to compare Jonathan Broxton to Saito, it is absurd to expect Baez to follow the path of Jansen, who made the majors in less than a year after converting to pitching and has a 2.22 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 145⅔ major league innings. But given that both Jansen and now Baez have switched from "hitter" to pitcher, the comparisons aren't likely to go away anytime soon.
Gurnick also mentioned another Dodgers prospect whose best path to the majors lies in the bullpen. Chris Withrow moved from starting to relief for Double-A Chattanooga last June 29 (in Withrow's fourth different season in Double-A), and the switch is now permanent. Withrow, who turns 24 in April, had a 5.71 ERA in eight starts in 2012, with 45 strikeouts and 26 walks in 41 innings. In 14 relief appearances, Withrow's ERA dipped to 2.37 though his 19 strikeouts and 12 walks in 19 innings were similar to his other numbers.
But Honeycutt praised the approach of Withrow in relief as opposed to starting.
"Chris wanted the change," Honeycutt said. "He likes attacking more. He reminds me a little of Gagne, somebody who might throw three or four innings as a starter but have one [bad] inning, and you can eliminate that if you're only asking one inning of relief from him. Maybe one- or two-inning stints will be easier on his back. He's got the arm."
The stuff for Withrow has been evident for some time, and it's why he continues to show up on Dodgers top 10 prospects lists, as he did with Baseball Prospectus and Minor League Ball this year. Back in spring training in 2012, manager Don Mattingly was high on Withrow, but acknowledged his wildness.
"The promise is there. Sometimes it just takes guys a little longer. We're hoping Chris is one of those guys that are step by step, then all of a sudden you've got something," said Mattingly. "His stuff plays, there's no doubt about that."
No we get to see if that stuff plays even better out of the bullpen.