You can sign every Kevin Appier and Dave Burba on the planet, but the best way to build and maintain a deep pitching staff is to develop a ton of young arms in the hopes that a select few are able to make it to AAA and knock on the big league door. The M's don't have many, but they've got a few, and one in particular stands out in my mind. So, it's probably high time we take a quick look at the minor league pitcher who's most likely to make a significant contribution to the 2006 Mariners (apologies to Jesse Foppert).
Everyone's already familiar with Nageotte's performance history. Drafted out of high school, this guy immediately took to professional baseball, plowing through the low minors to the tune of 460 strikeouts in 367 innings at or below San Bernardino. Statistically, almost everything was in place - he missed bats, and the batters who were able to make contact still didn't hit the ball very hard. The only thing holding Nageotte back from uber-elite prospect status was his control, but as a young pitcher less than three years removed from high school whose top pitch was a breaking ball, you could look past the walks, assuming that they'd become less and less frequent over time.
Instead, the opposite happened - Nageotte walked more batters upon promotion to San Antonio, and his strikeouts declined by more than 20%. It wasn't the kind of trend you wanted to see from a guy who was flying north on prospect lists, but everyone has to make an adjustment to AA, and Nageotte still looked like a capable future starter. Although it's not so in the Majors, hit and home run rates can provide valuable information on a pitching prospect, and the fact that Nageotte allowed just 127 hits and six bombs in 154 AA innings spoke volumes about how difficult it was to make solid contact against hist stuff. Assuming things went well in Tacoma the following season, it looked like the 2004 Mariners would be able to give Nageotte a little September experience to prep him for a full-time big league gig in 2005.
...Nageotte would get that experience, but not as a reward for being phenomenal in AAA. While his strikeouts declined again (down another 23%), his home runs allowed jumped up to nine in 80.2 innings, and there still wasn't any improvement in his walk rate. With better hitters being able to identify and lay off of his slider, Nageotte didn't really have anything to fall back on, and he began to lose his sheen. The wheels really came off when he was promoted to Seattle, where he wound up walking more batters than he struck out.
Statistically, Nageotte was a mess. His strikeouts kept dropping every time he moved up a level while his walks remained alarmingly high. He didn't look much better in person, either, as he had to deal with a slider that wasn't biting and a bit of a weight problem that contributed to a nagging back injury. The promise was still there, somewhere, but in the span of one season Nageotte had gone from a can't-miss future starter to a guy who'd be lucky to salvage an effective Major League career.
If you were able to look past his ugly 2004 peripherals, though, there was a little reason to be encouraged by Nageotte's performance. His command was all over the place but his groundball rate was pretty high, to the tune of 2.40 grounders per fly ball (per the Hardball Times). So the ML audition wasn't a total loss. A pitcher who's able to keep the ball in the infield more often can get by with worse peripherals than one of his flyball counterparts, so if nothing else, there was a little reason for hope.
Nageotte would struggle with injuries again in 2005, missing half the season with a strained forearm, and upon his return the organization had him pitching out of the bullpen. People tend to believe one of two things about this decision - either (A) the Mariners were treating Nageotte with kid gloves coming back from his injury, or (B) they didn't view him as a long-term starter, and wanted to see if he and his limited repertoire would be any better in relief. Whatever the case may be, Nageotte came out looking like a better pitcher than the one he was a year before. Although his walks were still too high, he was striking out a batter an inning, he wasn't getting hit real hard, and his groundball rate of 2.82 suggested that 2004 wasn't a fluke. Were he to put up the same line in the Majors, his FIP would've been around 3.75. Not too shabby. He'd follow that up with a jaw-dropping performance in the AFL, where he put up some of the best numbers in the league as a starter. Not that AFL performance really means much of anything, but better a guy go there and dominate than go there and get smacked silly.
Which brings us to 2006. As best I can tell, the Mariners have so far been noncommital about Nageotte's long-term role, but I don't see how it would make any sense to bump him to the bullpen full-time before giving him every opportunity to make it as a starter (the same goes for Raffy Soriano, but I digress). The organization is practically devoid of guys with #2 starter ability and frighteningly thin in the rotation, so you'd hope that they'd give Nageotte another chance. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, since you can always move him back to the bullpen later on if things don't work out. Why not go ahead and see if that AFL performance was for real? As a general rule of thumb, relievers are much, much easier to find than starters, so...well now I'm just repeating myself.
More than anything else, I'd say that Nageotte has two things going for him: one, he's supposedly in better shape than he used to be, and two, he looks to be a groundball machine. Don't underestimate the impact his weight had on his performance - you could see how much of a struggle it was for Nageotte to throw every pitch by how much he was sweating in 2004, and once you tweak your back, it's virtually impossible to keep your mechanics in order.
As for the second point, I think the groundballs go a long way towards making up for Nageotte's limited arsenal. He'll tell you that he's comfortable with his changeup, but in reality, he's a two-pitch pitcher, going after hitters with a slider and a two-seam fastball. There are two ways to throw a heater: straight and fast (Matt Thornton's four-seamer), or crooked and slower (Nageotte's two-seamer). The former is more likely to miss bats, but when it gets hit, it goes a long way. The latter won't rack up the strikeouts, but its natural movement (mostly sink, along with some lateral motion depending on the grip) makes it difficult to make solid contact, leading to a bunch of ground balls. That's quickly becoming Nageotte's #1 pitch - where he used to rely on his slider for strikeouts in the minors, now he's able to use the two-seamer earlier in counts, getting quick outs and allowing him to be more economical on the mound. The movement makes it tricky to control, but thrown properly it's tough to hit well. It doesn't hurt that both the slider and two-seam fastball look very similar out of the hand, making it difficult to tell them apart.
Having a hard, moving fastball doesn't automatically turn a guy into a quality starting pitcher, but it does make it a little easier. Nageotte still has a lot of improving to do before we can rely on him to hold down a rotation spot in the Majors, because walking six guys per nine innings out of a AAA bullpen is never going to translate very well. Nevertheless, with the development of his two-seamer to complement the slider, I think the organization should be obligated to let Nageotte start in Tacoma and try to prove that he belongs in Gil Meche's place. Where's the downside? He may never get his walks fully under control, but as long as he misses a few bats every now and then while keeping the ball on the ground, he doesn't have to.
Clint Nageotte is a different pitcher than the one you used to read about in Baseball America, but he's still a quality prospect with a chance at having a bright (and lucrative) future. He's not ready yet, but there's the distinct possibility that, handled properly, the 2007 Mariners will have a pair of young groundball pitchers starting 30 games apiece. It may not work out that way, but given how Nageotte looked two Septembers ago, I don't see how this could be considered anything less than encouraging.