It seems as if every year becomes a make-or-break season for pitcher Dan Denham -- with the emphasis on break.
Scouts say that gaining consistent command of his breaking ball would help the former first-round draft pick in his quest to advance to the major leagues.
Thus far, the right-hander's rise has been mostly achieved with his fine fastball, but Denham believes that over six seasons as a professional he has begun to develop into a pitcher rather than a thrower.
"I like to throw the fastball, but I've developed other pitches and I've got confidence in them," said Denham.
"I've got the fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. Hopefully I'll get a lot better with all of them and throw them all for strikes. Command is something you strive for every day. Your pitches have to be good, but they have to be thrown to the right spot, too."
Denham was at the right spot in 2001 when he was the first of five prized prep pitchers picked by the Indians and got a big signing bonus ($1.8 million) as the No. 17 pick overall. The four other high-school hurlers selected by Cleveland were right-handers Alan Horne, J.D. Martin, Jake Dittler and Travis Foley. Horne did not sign, but another top prep pitcher from that draft, left-hander Jeremy Sowers (No. 20 by Cincinnati) is now with the Indians, too. He was Cleveland's top pick in 2004 (No. 6 overall) after playing college ball at Vanderbilt.
Sowers is the only pitcher from the group to get to the big leagues. (Foley, incidentially, was also traded to the A's earlier this month and he is currently at Double-A Midland.)
Denham gained attention as a senior at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif., in 2001, when he went 8-2 with one save and a 1.57 ERA. In 67 innings over 11 games, he yielded only 34 hits while striking out 121, walking 23 and sporting one of the top-rated fastballs of any pitcher in America.
Unlike Sowers, Denham was eager to turn professional.
"I was ready for pro ball," he said. "I didn't want to go to school anymore, I wanted to play baseball. That has always been my dream, so I didn't see any reason to wait any longer."
He struggled with his command, however, in his first season, walking 26 and hitting six batters in only 30 2/3 innings as he went 0-4 with a 4.40 ERA at Class A Burlington. Nevertheless, Appalachian League managers impressed by Denham's 96-mph fastball voted him the No. 2 prospect in the league.
The next year, Denham had some early problems at Columbus in the Class A South Atlantic League. In his first 16 innings, he had 12 walks, three wild pitches, one hit batter, an 0-2 record and 5.74 ERA. He went 9-6 with a 4.54 ERA the rest of the season, cutting his walks down to 53 in his final 110 innings.
He began to show glimpses of settling down in 2003 at Class A Lake County, going 5-2 with a 3.08 ERA and only 22 walks with 63 strikeouts in 73 innings to earn a promotion to Kinston. He went 5-5 with the K-Tribe and returned in 2004 to go 7-4 with 29 walks and 62 strikeouts in 71 innings before being sent to Class AA Akron.
With the Aeros, Denham had a 5-4 record and 5.33 ERA and while he kept his walks reasonably in check (31 in 76 innings), he gave up 12 home runs.
Scouts have said that when Denham "stays on top of the ball," he is effective. He has a tendency to drop his arm slot down in his delivery, however, which flattens out his breaking pitches -- and can lead to opponents hitting them out of the park.
Denham remains confident that he is right on track to achieve his lifelong goal of pitching in the major leagues, however.
"For this year, all I want to do is stay healthy and have a better year than the year before," he said. "That's the only thing I really want. Everything else will take care of itself as far as gaining experience.
"I've always had confidence in myself because I just enjoy pitching. So I don't consider it pressure when I go out there. I'm doing what I like to do. The more pressure situations you face, the better you get at them. You go through it and survive and you build confidence. That's what pitching in the minor leagues is all about."
Dave Wallace, who has been Denham's catcher at several levels in the Tribe's farm system, said the right-hander's determination matches his talent.
"I'd say he is confident, not arrogant," Wallace said. "He's aggressive and means business on the mound. When he has command of his delivery, he's tough."
Denham appeared poised for success in 2005 at Double-A Akron when he went 9-7 with a 3.15 ERA, allowing only 115 hits and 30 walks while striking out 108 over 140 innings. He earned a three-game trial at Triple-A Buffalo and started the 2006 season there.
The 2006 season was very disappointing, however. Denham went only 1-2 with an 8.28 ERA in nine games, being sent to the bullpen for the first time in his career. He then was demoted to Akron and showed some improvement by going 6-2 in 23 games, including 13 relief appearances. But he had a 4.88 ERA and walked 39 while striking out only 40.
Dan's brother Jason was picked by the Indians in the 13th round in 2004. A quick, left-handed outfielder, he batted .302 at Mahoning Valley in 2006 to earn a spot on the New York-Penn League All-Star team.
ED. Note: Denham has not yet been added to any of the A's minor league rosters, but he is expected to be sent to Double-A Midland, where he would be reunited with his former Cleveland farm teammate Travis Foley.