We've seen a lot of Mariners - 13 in all - make their Major League debuts this season. And several of them have come in the last few days, with Oswaldo Navarro, Travis Chick, Francisco Cruceta, Cesar Jimenez, and Jon Huber all finding themselves quickly thrust into action after getting September promotions. When you have a team that loses this often, rookies are usually one of the only things that keep you paying attention, and this year's crop hasn't disappointed, with a couple guys standing out as potential contributors in 2007.
The one I want to talk about today, though, is a little further off, but easily one of the most interesting of the bunch. Ryan Feierabend made his debut this afternoon less than a month after his 21st birthday. Coming to Seattle straight out of AA, he retired Vernon Wells on the first pitch of his Major League career and went on to throw two shutout innings, with the only baserunner reaching on an error by TJ Bohn (who will not get a special article like this, on account of he's not very good). For a guy who must've been suffocating in butterflies, Feierabend looked great in striking out a pair of hitters and inducing another into a double play. His first game couldn't possibly have gone any better.
The background on Feierabend is this - a Mattox pick out of high school in the 2003 draft (third round, reasonably pricey), Feierabend was only a couple miles per hour away from being lumped in with that collection of soft-tossing lefties that the organization only recently stopped accumulating. His fastball hit the upper-80s and his frame suggested there was still more to come, and already equipped with a good changeup at the tender age of 18, there was reason to believe that Feierabend might actually have a future in the business.
His performance didn't live up to the buzz, though, and after his first full season in professional baseball he looked like the kind of guy who tops out in AA. He threw strikes, but he got too much of the plate, and his stuff wasn't even good enough to miss bats in the Midwest League. Age was still on his side, but that was it, really - Feierabend became more of an afterthought than anything else.
Then something clicked. With a honed changeup, a few extra miles on his fastball, and a developing curve to give him a weapon against lefties, Feierabend started to pitch up to his draft slot in 2005, improving his strikeout rate by more than 20% despite getting promoted to a higher level. Encouraged by his progress, the Mariners bumped him again this past summer, giving the 20 year old a full season of AA experience.
Safe to say it worked out pretty well. Despite being young for AA, Feierabend's walk and strikeout rates were both better than the league average, and he was able to pitch effectively against hitters on both sides of the plate. In so doing, he established himself as the most polished starting pitching prospect in the organization, ahead of Cruceta (who struggles to throw strikes) and Brandon Morrow (who hasn't pitched enough). He's been a bright spot in a system that badly needed some guys in the upper levels to step up, and he's planted himself firmly on the radar.
Feierabend doesn't have the tools to become a front-of-the-rotation starter, but I think it's important to point out that a guy doesn't need to have ace potential to be worthy of enthusiasm and anticipation. As is the case with pretty much anyone who throws with his left hand, Feierabend has gotten tagged with the "intelligent" and "crafty" labels, but in this case they're actually deserved, as he's a much smarter pitcher now than he was when he was drafted (which you'd expect for a teenager coming straight out of high school). He also has the stuff to give him a little (althougn not very much) wiggle room, as his 90+ fastball is legitimately hard enough to miss bats, and his dual offspeed stuff lets him pitch differently to left- and right-handed hitters without having to sacrifice much in the way of effectiveness. Although he did pitch better against lefties this year, the platoon split was small, which makes sense considering the changeup is probably Feierabend's best offering.
It's also worth noting that his debut today allowed me to take a look at his delivery, and I didn't see any glaring problems. He overthrew his fastball a few times, which was evident in his follow-through, but I wouldn't expect anything different of a guy facing Major League hitters for the first time in his life, so I don't think it's that big of a deal. He keeps his head straight, his glove in good position, and his elbow locked to his hips, all of which are good and somewhat remarkable for a guy that young. He also throws every pitch with a consistent release behind the backs of left-handed hitters, which can make the lateral motion of his curveball tough to pick up. There's nothing flashy about Feierabend's delivery - it's just solid and boring, which I find to be a breath of fresh air after seeing some of the other deliveries in the organization.
Thanks to his performance, Feierabend has pretty much fast-tracked himself. Before you let yourself get too excited, though, there are a few concerns. For one, he's always been, and remains to this day, a fairly extreme flyball pitcher. Only 37.9% of his balls in play stayed on the ground, as opposed to a 45.8% league average. He misses enough bats to limit the damage, but better hitters are still going to be able to take advantage of this by launching a few more balls over the fence. Feierabend also benefited considerably from San Antonio's Woolf Stadium, which is one of the most pitcher-friendly environments on the planet. His OPS against was .618 at home and .913 on the road, and while he's not nearly as bad as the latter, he's also not quite as good as the former. The entire Mariner system is comprised of pitcher's parks, and while it makes some sense given where the big league club plays its home games, it can mislead you about the quality of the young arms in the organization. Finally, there's the matter of Feierabend's performance when men on base - he got beat up this year when he had to worry about baserunners, which could be a fluke, but could also be an indication of something he needs to work on (for example, pitching from the stretch, which he did this afternoon).
Ryan Feierabend has a lot more development ahead of him before he's ready for a full-time job in the big leagues, but don't let that get you down. He'll spend 2007 in Tacoma fine-tuning his command and improving his situational pitching, earning himself another August/September promotion and a shot at a rotation slot in 2008 (possibly sooner if he just blows people away next year). Because his repertoire is still fairly limited, he carries a moderate risk of never quite panning out, but with his age, delivery, and success in AA this summer, he's one of the safer bets in the system. His upside is that of a dependable #3 in the mold of a Randy Wolf or Jarrod Washburn's good years, and while I may be blinded by the awfulness of the Mariners' current rotation, I think that's something worth looking forward to.
It's time people start forgetting about the Clint Nageottes and Travis Blackleys of yesteryear and start focusing on the newer, more promising arms in the organization. Ryan Feierabend's currently leading that pack of young talent, and if you still aren't quite sure why that is, give it a year. You'll get it.