By JAY LeBLANC
July 26, 2008
Some young ballplayers are considered prospects because scouts believe their raw physical abilities might someday translate to success on the diamond. Others garner attention the old-fashioned way: by going out and performing better than the competition. And while big-league organizations seem increasingly enamored with players in the first category, Washington Nationals farmhand Adrian Alaniz definitely falls into the second. Alaniz, a 24-year-old righty, has never been highly regarded in prospect circles, primarily because his fastball only reaches the high 80s. Even after going 8-2 with a 2.39 ERA in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League last summer as a member of the Vermont Lake Monsters, he was left off Baseball America’s list of the Nats’ top 30 prospects this past offseason.
However, the fact is that 249 players were selected before the Nats took Alaniz in the eighth round of the 2007 draft, and one year later, the 24-year-old righty is further along in his journey to the big leagues than all but a few of them. The former University of Texas star followed up his outstanding debut by skipping Class A ball and starting this season by going 9-0 with a 2.62 ERA for the advanced Class A Potomac Nationals. Sensing that he needed a new challenge, the Nationals promoted Alaniz to the Class AA Harrisburg Senators in early June. He’s 0-3 with a 4.11 ERA after seven starts, but those statistics don’t provide a clear picture of how well the 6’ 2”, 200 pounder has actually pitched for the Senators. Using a four-pitch arsenal of a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup, Alaniz has gone six innings in five of those seven starts and pitched five innings in the other two, allowing three runs or fewer in all but one appearance so far. Take away his lone bad outing - he allowed six earned runs in five innings in a loss to the Bowie Baysox on June 30 - and he’d be sporting a very respectable 3.29 ERA in double-A.
Alaniz has vastly exceeded expectations up to this point in his pro career by going 17-5 with a 2.94 ERA and striking out 149 batters in 171 2/3 innings while walking just 48. While he still has his doubters, there have been plenty of pitchers over the years who didn’t have overpowering stuff but got batters out by mixing pitches, changing speeds and hitting spots. At least one such pitcher, former Pittsburgh Pirates lefty and current Potomac Nationals pitching coach Randy Tomlin, believes Alaniz has what it takes to experience success in the big leagues despite his lack of velocity, as long as he pitches smart. “Adrian’s a pitcher, and that’s all it takes,” Tomlin said. “He uses all four of his pitches and stays down in the zone. He’ll get better at recognizing swings and those types of things as he goes through the lineup, and make adjustments as they make adjustments to him - which he’ll have to get really good at. But the main thing for him is to use all four pitches and keep the ball down.”
I caught up with Alaniz - who was the subject of National Pastime’s third-ever Prospect Q&A column in early June - Wednesday night after his Senators dropped a rain-shortened five-inning contest to the Baysox at Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, Md.:
Q: You were drafted just over a year ago and you’ve already reached double-A. Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
A: I mean, it’s obviously a lot of the hard work that was put into this, a couple of luck factors here and there and obviously, with this organization, they like guys to move up really quick and they need talent up there at that level, so I think it’s a perfect situation for me to be in and I’m happy to be where I’m at right now.
Q: Are you surprised how quickly you’ve moved?
A: I am in a way, you know, because normally in instances like this, you don’t see people move up from short-season to double-A very quick; usually you’ve got to put in a year or two or so to get to this spot. I’m very humbled about where I’m at right now, and happy.
Q: Can you tell the difference in the level of competition as you move through the organization?
A: Oh yeah, very much so. I was talking about this the other night, about how at Potomac, in high-A, you face good hitters and yet you can get away with a few more mistakes within the strike zone as a pitcher. Obviously when you move on to better levels, the pitching is going to get tougher and the hitters are going to get more patient and see the ball better, so I would say now that I’ve experienced a month and a half of double-A that guys are a little more patient up there at the plate and they hit your mistakes a lot more. It just makes you better as a pitcher; you have to grind a little bit more within and out of the strike zone. It’s definitely a challenge.
Q: What kinds of adjustments have you had to make to stay successful as you’ve moved up?
A: You know, I try not to change a whole lot. I am the pitcher I am, but at the same time, keeping the ball down against these hitters in double-A is a huge factor, and mixing pitches well - just like if I was pitching with Potomac. But the main thing is to try not to do anything differently than what I had done to get here at this point, and just kind of roll with the flow and work day by day.
Q: Have the Nats given you any ideas about things they’d like you to work on?
A: No, not really, and I think that’s something that they would talk about as the season would end. Right now we’re in the process and they’re just letting us go out there and do our stuff, and we’re already toward the end of the season, so why go and change someone and what they’re doing? I think that’s something that would be brought up later on down the road, but not right now.
Q: Do you think you’re ready to help the Nats now, or do you still need to work on some things?
A: I think I could get better at a lot of things. Obviously I want to get to that level at some point in time, but I still think there are some things I need to develop, and how consistently I can be effective in working with those things will determine whether I get there sooner or later.
A: Not really sure. It’s still up in the air. I think the talks about that will be coming up in the next month or so. As soon as the season ends, then we’ll get an idea of what’s going to go on, but I’m up for anything right now.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Amanda Rice