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Jharel Cotton emerges as possible Dodgers bullpen option

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Jharel Cotton has 105 strikeouts in 88 innings this season.
Jharel Cotton has 105 strikeouts in 88 innings this season.
Photo: Rich Crimi | Tulsa Drillers

LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers minor league pitcher Jharel Cotton got the call on Friday, when Double-A Tulsa manager Razor Shines told the right-hander he was promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City. If Cotton keeps up his breakout season, it might not be the last such meeting he has in 2015.

"He told me I'm going to Triple-A to relieve out of the pen, and hopefully the Dodgers like what they see," Cotton said. "It's great to know that."

The promotion to Triple-A was well earned for Cotton, the Dodgers' 20th-round pick in 2012.

Cotton, 23, was 5-2 with a 2.30 ERA in 11 games for Double-A Tulsa, including eight starts, with 71 strikeouts and 21 walks in 62⅔ innings. On a prospect-laden staff that included Julio Urias, Jose De Leon and Chris Anderson, Cotton was just as good as if not better than all of them in Double-A in many respects.

"It's a pretty good group of guys," Cotton said. "I tried to benefit from them."

Anderson was promoted with Cotton to Oklahoma City, where both starters will pitch out of the bullpen, a tryout of sorts for a September call-up to help the beleaguered Dodgers bullpen. It's a bit of a long shot as Anderson have doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster until November 2016 — Cotton will need to be added this November, giving him a slight edge — but they definitely have a chance.

Cotton's breakout season actually began in 2014, when with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga he was urged by pitching coach Matt Herges and roving instructor Damon Mashore to attack hitters more often, to trust his stuff and have a plan before he pitched.

"At the end of last year, I found a mechanical change, and stopped tipping my pitches. I built my confidence up, and took that confidence from last year into this year. I worked hard, came to spring training in shape, and just ran with it," Cotton said. "This season has been a step up in my confidence and my aggressiveness, and it's taken me a long way."

He finished 2014 with a 1.11 ERA over his last seven starts, with 55 strikeouts against only 12 walks. But before his 2015 began, Cotton suffered a setback.

Hit by a comebacker during spring training, Cotton broke his left wrist (his non-throwing hand), which sidelined him for over two months.

"I was frustrated, because the doctor said I was out for three months. I'm like 'Three months for my left hand? I can catch a ball within a month or so.' I felt like I could pitch after the first two weeks, but I knew I had to take it slow," Cotton recalled. "After that surgery all I did was workout and throw, keep my pitching ability up, so when I did come back I was back where I started."

After one rehab start with Class-A Great Lakes in May, then four starts with Rancho Cucamonga in June, Cotton was in Tulsa. It was his second career stint in Double-A, though the last time was a six-week stint in 2013 in an attempt to shift him to the bullpen, though for a different reason.

"Coaches were saying I would be better out of the pen. I don't think I was ready at that point. I was still tipping my pitches, I wasn't the pitcher that I am right now," Cotton said. "But now I'm different, and ready to go out there and pitch my butt off."

Cotton today has a low-90s fastball that may play up in relief, and he calls his changeup his second-best pitch. He'll use the cutter or slider to right-handers as well.

He recently switched agents to Beverly Hills Sports Council.

Across three levels this season Cotton's strikeout rate is 30.1 percent, a career best.

If anything, Cotton enjoys a challenge. When asked to name a highlight from this season, Cotton picked a July 31 start against Arkansas in which he walked seven batters in five innings.

Cotton got out of a bases-loaded jam with two outs in the first inning, stranded runners in scoring position in both the second and fourth innings, then loaded the bases with nobody out in the fifth. He got out of that predicament as well, completing a most unusual five scoreless innings.

"It wasn't my best game at all, but the way I attacked and pitched, I got out of every jam presented to me," Cotton said. "It showed me a lot with my pitching ability."

If anything, the broken wrist helped limit Cotton's innings this season, having thrown 88⅓ innings in 2015 compared to 126⅔ last year. In other words, there is plenty left in the tank for a deep run this season.

While Cotton sees himself as a starting pitcher in the long term, he's willing to do whatever is necessary to get to the major leagues.

"I'm pretty confident," he said. "But whatever the Dodgers have planned for me is what I'll do. I'll just go out there and do my best."

So far that has served him well.