No Time Like the Present

April 25, 2010

It's the toughest decision in baseball: When is a starter ready for the Show? While Stephen Strasburg toils in Double A, minors-skipping Mike Leake delivers for the Reds

One afternoon late last month in Goodyear, Ariz., Reds pitcher Mike Leake, making his first-ever spring training start, found himself staring down from the mound at Ken Griffey Jr., his boyhood idol. Leake—a spindly righthander with brown shaggy hair and a small scruff on his chin—is a command pitcher who paints the corners of the strike zone with the precision of a miniaturist. But on an 0-and-2 count against Griffey, he unfurled a slider that scudded inside and nailed the Mariners' future Hall of Famer on the right ankle. After the game, Leake's brother, Ryan, the pitching coach at UC San Diego, asked Mike if he lost control because he was facing a player whose posters covered the walls of his childhood room. "No way," Leake snapped. "I was trying to strike him out. I should have struck him out."

You don't force your way into a major league rotation at 22 years old, you don't become the 21st player in baseball history to skip the minor leagues altogether, unless you have some serious confidence and attitude—especially when you're 5'10" and 180 pounds and your fastball barely tops out in the low 90s. A year ago Leake was a junior at Arizona State, but on April 11 he took the mound against the Cubs at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and became the first pitcher in 21 years to make his big league debut as a starter without throwing a pitch in the minors. He allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings in the Reds' 3--1 win, and five days later he made another quality start, allowing three runs over seven innings in a one-run loss to the Pirates. The thing he'll most remember from his first week in the Show? "The seven walks against the Cubs," he says. "I've never walked that many—and don't plan to ever again."

At a time when prized pitching prospects are handled like Ming vases, the Reds defied convention when they made Leake—the eighth pick in last June's amateur draft—their fifth starter over lefthanders Travis Wood, the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, and Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban import Cincinnati signed for $30 million over five years. The rest of the baseball world clearly has a different philosophy when it comes to grooming young pitchers. On the day Leake made his historic start, No. 1 choice Stephen Strasburg grabbed the headlines (and caused a bottleneck outside Blair County Stadium, home of the Altoona [Pa.] Curve) by making his pro debut, with the Double A Harrisburg Senators. He dazzled with his high-90s heat, and while scouts and analysts are certain the 6'4", 220-pound missile thrower is ready to dominate big league hitters—"There's no question that based on talent, he's the Nationals' best starter right now," says Baseball America editor Jim Callis—Washington is keeping Strasburg bubble-wrapped in the minors. "I'm not a believer that a player can come from amateur baseball and step right into the majors," says general manager Mike Rizzo. "I've seen too many terrific prospects try and fail."

Other organizations have also resisted the temptation, from the Rangers (with lefthander Martin Perez) to the Rays (righthander Jeremy Hellickson) to the Rockies (lefties Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek) to the Giants (lefty Madison Bumgarner). But here now is Leake, whose fastball can barely keep pace with Strasburg's changeup, out to prove Rizzo and the nonbelievers wrong. "We know that history suggests that guys in his situation typically fail," says Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "The easy and safe thing would have been to let him go to Double A for 10 starts, then to Triple A for another 10, then maybe get him up here at the end of the season, and then say, O.K., we did it by the book. But the bottom line is we're trying to win, and we think this kid is ready."

Since the advent of the June draft, in 1965, nine starting pitchers before Mike Leake made the leap from amateur baseball straight to the majors (box, opposite page). The last to do so was Jim Abbott, who, fresh out of Michigan, went 12--12 with a 3.92 ERA for the Angels in 1989 and went on to a productive career. But there are also the horror stories—most notably Texas high school star David Clyde, who was out of the game within six years of his 1973 debut with the Rangers, his left arm ruined for good.

Angels scouting director Eddie Bane is on that list: A first-round pick in 1973, he went straight from Arizona State (like Leake) to the Twins. Bane knows how difficult that leap can be—he was 7--13 over three forgettable seasons—and is also aware that the stakes are much higher for clubs today than they were when he came up. "You're investing so much money with bonuses," Bane says, "you better err on the side of caution."

Ask Rizzo, who signed Strasburg to a record $15 million contract last August, what his prized prospect needs to work on in the minors, and he offers a lengthy list: throwing from the stretch, holding runners on, not rushing to the plate, hitting, bunting, fielding off the mound. Most believe Strasburg will be called up in June; starting his major league service time then will delay his eligibility for arbitration and free agency until 2013 and 2016, respectively. Rizzo knows keeping Strasburg on the farm looks like a purely financial decision—the Nats could save $18 million over the next six years—but that has "little or nothing to do with my decision," he says. "Other people have said the ticket revenues we'll make by bringing him to the majors will offset [the amount the Nats would have to pay him]. The bottom line is, we don't think he's ready yet."

"I'm sure they have someone calculating the exact minute he won't be eligible for arbitration," says Callis. "But you also have to consider that Strasburg threw [fewer than] 120 innings last year. It makes sense for him to throw 50 innings in the minors, another 100 in the big leagues, and then have him shut down in September. Why risk it when you're a team that has no chance to win the division? I think they're doing the right thing."

Like the Nationals, the Reds felt their young flamethrower needed seasoning: They sent Chapman, who signed in January, to Triple A Louisville to start the season. "It was more important for Aroldis to get his feet on the ground," says Cincinnati G.M. Walt Jocketty. "In addition to learning the nuances of the National League game, he has the cultural differences he has to get used to as well. At this point Leake has better command of his pitches. He's a better hitter, he fields his position better. If we had sent Leake down with Aroldis, I just don't know what we would have told him to work on."

Strasburg was widely considered the best prospect in last June's draft, but Leake, who was 16--1 with a 1.71 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 142 innings at Arizona State in 2009, may have had a better season than Strasburg, who was 13--1 with a 1.32 ERA while pitching for San Diego State in the Mountain West, an inferior conference to the Pac-10. Leake, who weighed 160 pounds as a freshman out of Fallbrook (Calif.) High, is accustomed to being overlooked. "I've always found it kind of funny that 5'10" guys don't get the same look," he says. "It kind of feeds the fires for me. It motivates me."

Leake, who was given a $2.3 million signing bonus, came to the Reds fully formed, with "four major league pitches," says Bane, and command that Callis says major league talent evaluators rated as the best in last year's draft class. But Leake's biggest strength may be his knack for making adjustments during games; in the first inning against Chicago, he danced unscathed out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam. "He's always had that ability," says his brother, who recalls a conference matchup against Stanford during Mike's freshman year when he allowed four runs in the first two innings, then shut out the Cardinal the rest of the way. After the game, Ryan asked what happened early on. "Mike said he couldn't retire any lefthanded hitters, so he decided to start throwing a cutter," says Ryan. "I asked him if he had been working on a cutter. He said no, he just sort of grabbed it in the third inning, tried it out, and it started cutting."

The biggest concern will be how Leake is handled by Reds manager Dusty Baker, who has a reputation for overworking young pitchers. (The former Cubs skipper is often blamed for ruining the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.) But the Reds—from Baker to Price to Jocketty—all insist they will be cautious. "If you want to manage innings, you have to keep kids from pitching after September 1," says Price. "That's where the innings go from 160, 175, where everyone's comfortable, to closer to 200. When we get to September, we'll evaluate where his innings are and make the big decisions then."

How the Mike Leake Experiment turns out may determine whether, as Jocketty says, "there might be more players pushed faster after this." He says, "This is one way to bolster your club more cost-effectively. Sometimes it's better to give a kid like Mike Leake an opportunity rather than spend two or three million dollars on a veteran you're not sure what you're going to get out of."

Says Bane, "It's refreshing to see Cincinnati give a chance to a young guy. I think it's a great idea—look what [then 20-year-old] Rick Porcello did for Detroit last year. You don't see this happening a lot because it's hard enough to find pitchers that have the stuff. But Mike Leake has the stuff. There's no question Stephen Strasburg has the stuff. So why not pull the trigger?"

Rizzo, despite pressure from the fans, is not ready to: "There's no timetable, there's no calendar. We're just going to watch Stephen's progress. We want him to stay up here once he comes up—whether that's next week, next month or next year, we just don't know."

The Strasburg world premiere has to wait. For now, the stage belongs to Mike Leake.

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"If we sent him down," Jocketty says of Leake, "I don't know what we would have told him to work on."

Show Starters

Since the amateur draft began in 1965, 10 pitchers have debuted as starters in the majors without appearing in the minors. Here's how Mike Leake's precocious predecessors panned out:

STEVE DUNNING Indians 1970

7-year career: 23--41, 4.56 ERA

PETE BROBERG Senators 1971

8-year career: 41--71, 4.56 ERA

BURT HOOTON Cubs 1971

15-year career: 151--136, 3.38 ERA

EDDIE BANE Twins 1973

3-year career: 7--13, 4.66 ERA

DAVID CLYDE Rangers 1973

5-year career: 18--33, 4.63 ERA

DICK RUTHVEN Phillies 1973

14-year career: 123--127, 4.14 ERA

TIM CONROY A's 1978

7-year career: 18--32, 4.69 ERA

MIKE MORGAN A's 1978

22-year career: 141--186, 4.23 ERA

JIM ABBOTT Angels 1989

10-year career: 87--108, 4.25 ERA

PHOTOPhotograph by ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGESOLD SOUL In his first two starts the 22-year-old Leake showed a full repertoire of pitches and the poise of a vet. PHOTOFRED VUICH[See caption above] PHOTODILIP VISHWANAT (CHAPMAN)EYES ON PRIZES Despite their outsized potential, Chapman (left) and Strasburg (below) are getting an education in the minors. PHOTOCHRIS GARDNER/US PRESSWIRE (STRASBURG)[See caption above] PHOTOV.J. LOVERO (ABBOTT)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)