Top prospect Bumgarner gets taste of the scrutinized life

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After five or 10 minutes, Madison Bumgarner would look around and wonder where everybody had gone.

Frequently last year the Giants' ace prospect would be playing catch alongside his fellow pitchers, and Bumgarner would be so focused on tinkering with his mechanics that he'd outlast them all, often to the detriment of his fatiguing arm.

"Guys would be done and I'd keep throwing pitches, trying to perfect them," Bumgarner said recently.

That quest for perfection may have done Bumgarner more harm than good. The buzz in camp this spring for San Francisco's top pitching prospect was a loss of velocity that has persisted since last summer. Despite his stellar results last season -- he went 12-2 with a 1.85 ERA at two minor-league stops last year and pitched 10 innings with 10 strikeouts and only two runs allowed in the majors -- Bumgarner's 94-95 mph fastball had slipped to the upper 80s, a drop that the pitcher blames on throwing too much between starts.

"Quality, not quantity," he said.

That is just one of the lessons the 20-year-old from Hudson, N.C., will have to learn before he can become a permanent member of a major league staff. On Monday, Bumgarner, the No. 10 overall pick of the 2007 draft and the No. 14 prospect on Baseball America's latest top 100 list, was sent down to Triple-A for additional seasoning. He had a poor spring in which he gave up five runs in seven innings for a 6.43 ERA, walked seven and did not strike out a single batter. Todd Wellemeyer beat him out for the fifth spot in the Giants' rotation.

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"I put a little added pressure on myself," Bumgarner told the San Jose Mercury News after his demotion. "I hadn't pitched as well as I'd liked, and Wellemeyer was pitching awesome."

Bumgarner is not the only top pitching prospect to fail to make the majors this spring, but San Francisco can afford to be patient with him since there is no immediate need for Bumgarner with the parent club. San Francisco can already boast a rotation that includes two-time reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, All-Star Matt Cain, veteran Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez, who threw a no-hitter last July.

Such is the tenuous life of a highly-scrutinized top prospect. Bumgarner still has plenty of time and talent. He's still not old enough to legally drink (his birthday is Aug. 1) and he's a 6'4", 215-pound left-hander, and those body types with the potential to throw mid-90s fastballs are worth their scrawny weight in gold. The question for Bumgarner is which pitcher will he become: the flamethrowing projected ace of the future, or another effective but unspectacular southpaw starter?

"He's a talented kid with a live arm," said one National League scout, noting that Bumgarner's velocity will tick up when his mechanics improve and the spring progresses. That scout clocked Bumgarner at 91 on a couple pitches and saw him strikeout Manny Ramirez on three pitches the year before, saying, "He had great stuff that day."

Another scout said, "His release point was a little low, flattening his pitches."

Bumgarner isn't worried at all about his fastball nor is he worried about his poor results so far. "I saw some mechanical issues [on film], which shouldn't be too hard to fix," he said. "I got into a bad habit, and I want to take care of it."

For now, he'll be doing that at Triple-A Fresno, where he was sent after his demotion from the parent club. Bumgarner has said he's more concerned this spring about honing the offspeed pitches he has (slider, changeup) and adding one he doesn't (curve) than he is about his velocity, which began dissipating around June and didn't prevent him from finishing another stellar minor-league season (he's now 27-5 with a 1.65 ERA in two years in the minors), earning a September call-up or having success against major-league hitters.

Another promotion this season is likely a matter of if, not when. Bumgarner remains an intriguing prospect who should make an impact on the Giants postseason chances. Even after a difficult spring, he now knows what type of pitcher he has to be to stick in the majors.

Consider it just another lesson learned.