Jairo Cuevas had one of the best seasons in the Atlanta Braves' system last year. He was Danville's Pitcher of the Year and the Pitcher of the Year in the Appalachian League as well. Cuevas won six (2nd in the league) and lost one game, had a 1.95 ERA (2nd), allowed only 35 hits in 55.1 innings pitched, 22 walks, and 69 strikeouts (5th best in the league).
The six-foot-four, 240 pounder held Appy League hitters to a .179 average (third best among Braves' prospects) and averaged 1.25 strikeouts per inning.
Cuevas was signed three years ago out of the Dominican Republic, and now he's one of Atlanta's top pitching prospects.
Here's our chat with Jairo Cuevas.
SHANKS: Tell us about how the Braves signed you?
CUEVAS: He signed February 12, 2003. I was nineteen.
SHANKS: Had a lot of teams been looking at you?
CUEVAS: There were a couple of teams looking at me, but I went with the Braves. The Pirates offered me $50,000, but I didn't take it.
SHANKS: So why the Braves?
CUEVAS: I used to be a third baseman. When I was about sixteen I went to their academy in the Dominican and I used to practice there. I liked the team and everything. Then when I became nineteen I went to a tryout. I just liked the team.
SHANKS: Were you here in 2003? I think we saw you down here. You've gotten much bigger, right?
CUEVAS: Yeah. I signed and I didn't know what to do on the mound. I was just throwing a fastball and that was it. So I came here for spring training. I was here through extended, and then they sent me back to the D.R. to play in the Dominican Summer League. I played there in 2003. Then I came back here in 2004 and played in Gulf Coast League. Then I played last year in Danville. I was 6'2", 210 when I signed. Now I'm 6'4", 240.
SHANKS: So did you really learn how to be a pitcher with the Braves, since you had been a third baseman?
CUEVAS: When I signed, I didn't know what to do. I just threw a fastball. I didn't have a changeup or curve or anything. So in three years I've learned a lot of things. I've gotten that experience. Right now I feel more comfortable on the mound when I'm pitching. I know what I'm doing.
SHANKS: How hard did you throw when you signed?
CUEVAS: When I signed I was probably 88-92.
SHANKS: So that was why you were signed.
SHANKS: Why did the scout believe you could become a good pitcher? Had he seen you pitch at all?
CUEVAS: I had not pitched in a game at all. My first game I ever pitched was here in spring training (in 2003). I had never pitched. So I've learned a lot in a little time. I had a good arm at third.
SHANKS: Were you a good hitter?
CUEVAS: I could hit the ball. I don't know how well. When I hit it, it would go. But I was not consistent.
SHANKS: So what did you think when they told you they wanted you to become a pitcher?
CUEVAS: The Braves didn't make me a pitcher. They saw me at third base and they said, "Hey you have a future as a pitcher. You've got a good arm." So I went back home and talked with my family and then I became a pitcher. I was practicing for three months, and then the Braves signed me. But I had never pitched in a game before I signed - just bullpens and stuff.
SHANKS: So they kind of told you, "Hey we think you can be a pitcher." And you made the decision?
SHANKS: Most of these kids out here that come to camp for the first time have years of experience as a pitcher, so what's the process been like for you?
CUEVAS: It's different from other pitchers because they've been pitching almost their whole lives. So for me it was different. I had to compete with pitchers that were the same age but had more experience. I had to pick up the process. They mostly tell you what to do, but then you have to do it for yourself. You've got to practice for yourself. You've got to look for your goal. If you want it, you've got to practice hard.
SHANKS: So you were really going from a throwing to being a pitcher?
CUEVAS: Yeah. Going from a thrower to a pitcher. Anyone can throw. Right now, I'm still learning, but I feel more comfortable. I know what pitches to throw in a count. I know when to use my changeup. I know when to use my curveball. I know when to throw the extra gas to the hitter. That's the difficult thing. The mental part is the most difficult thing to do in a game.
SHANKS: And that will come with experience.
CUEVAS: Yeah, exactly. My first time I pitched in the DR I didn't have any experience at all. I just threw the ball - no curveball, no nothing. When I pitched in Gulf Coast, I felt better - not complete, but better. I didn't use the changeup a lot in Gulf Coast, just a fastball and curve. Last year in Danville it was my best year. I used the three combinations. It was better. I knew what I was doing. I felt comfortable. I was confident I could get hitters out. I'm still working on it. I'm still getting experience. Let's see what happens this year.
SHANKS: What all are you throwing?
CUEVAS: I've got a curveball, fastball, and changeup. I feel I can throw any of those pitches at any time in the count. I know those pitches are going to get better if I keep working hard. If I get experience I'm going to be getting better because I'm still young.
SHANKS: But you're not just young, you've got a young arm. You haven't been pitching long.
CUEVAS: Yeah. Exactly. I'm 22, but I've only pitched for three years. Most of the other 22-year olds have been pitching for seven or eight years.
SHANKS: How are your breaking pitches developing?
CUEVAS: The curveball is real good. I trust my curveball better than the changeup. This year and in the offseason I was working a lot on my changeup, to get a feel for it. In spring training I've been throwing it good. My fastball is at 93-94, while my changeup is at 82-83. Curve ball will be 74-75.
SHANKS: You were outstanding last year in Danville. Were you surprised at how well you did considering your lack of experience?
CUEVAS: I was surprised. I was pitching, and I didn't know what was going on around me. I didn't know I was doing that well. I knew I was doing good for my team, but I didn't know I was doing that well for the league. I didn't know it was that good. At the end of the season, I realized, "Wow, I'm like at the top for everything. Wow." I was surprised.
SHANKS: That must have given you great confidence?
CUEVAS: It felt real good last year. It was almost like, "Wow it's not that hard. I can do it."
SHANKS: And someone in your shoes, if you didn't do very well, you could question yourself more. You would wonder if you really should be a pitcher if you were struggling, but since you're doing well, that's got to help your confidence so much more.
CUEVAS: I know there are going to be bad days. Everyone's going to have bad days. I call my family and they support me. You can't do this by yourself. You have to have somebody to say, ‘Hey don't worry about it. Just keeping going at it.' So every time I had a bad outing in Danville I'd talk with my brother, who played baseball too. He would tell me, "Hey don't worry about it. Everybody's going to have bad days. It's going to happen. Don't think about it. Just learn from your mistakes, and go get them next time." Out of ten outings, I've got to get seven of them good. I've just got to make the most of it.
SHANKS: Did your brother play over here?
CUEVAS: He signed with the Kansas City Royals in 98 as a catcher, and then he turned into a pitcher. He threw hard - from 93-98. Then he went to Seattle and then the Cubs. He's not playing right now. He's back in the Dominican.
SHANKS: After you have a season like that, I would imagine your goals are a bit higher. What are your expectations for this year?
CUEVAS: I'm anxious to get started. This is going to be my first full season. I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to do my best. If I do the same as last year.
SHANKS: What have you topped out at on your fastball?
CUEVAS: I think 95, one time. From 91-93 I'm comfortable, and I can go to 94. I've been throwing 93 and 94 this spring. I worked hard this winter.
SHANKS: Will you know more about how good you really are after you have a full season in Rome?
CUEVAS: For me, this is new. The only thing I know is I want to give my best and give 100%. I worked hard in the offseason. I'm going to do my best. I hope at the end of the season, the results will be there.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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