GCL Cardinals 2011 Reliever of the Year

In his first summer in the US, right-hander Willy Paulino became the top reliever not only for the Cardinals, but in the entire Gulf Coast League.

There were a number of good candidates to consider when selecting the top relief pitcher on the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Cardinals. The 2011 pen featured a mix of overseas assignees playing in the US for the first time as well as draftees. Some came from the 2010 class and many from this June, experiencing their initial taste of professional baseball.

Right-handers Cesar Aguilar, Brandon Creath and Cole Brand all posted solid numbers, giving manager Steve Turco one of the deepest bullpens in the league. Lefty Tyler Melling also improved as the season wore on, but closer Willy Paulino receives the nod as The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Gulf Coast League Cardinals Relief Pitcher of the Year for 2011.

This decision was made easier when following the season, the GCL named Paulino the league's top reliever. The right-hander was one of 11 members of the 2011 GCL All-Star team.

It was a big step for the 21-year-old in his first summer pitching in the USA. The native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic had been signed in February 2009 and pitched in the Dominican Summer League his first two seasons.

Paulino was primarily a starter in the Dominican Summer League in 2010, where he led the team in both innings pitched and appearances. The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder logged a 2.76 ERA, fifth-best in the system.

He showed strikeout potential as well, fanning 55 in 62 innings, with a strikeout rate per nine innings (7.96) that placed him in the top ten in the entire organization. Paulino's opposing batting average of .207 was eighth among all Cardinals minor leaguers.

However, the right-hander also experienced worrisome control problems last season. Paulino walked 31, issued 11 wild pitches and hit a dozen DSL batters.

Unsure before this season whether to use Paulino as a starter or closer, Turco and pitching coach Dernier Orozco were later happy with their choice. Paulino consistently commanded the strike zone with his fastball, and showed enough confidence in his secondary pitches – slider and changeup – to throw them when he was behind in the count.

Not only was Paulino the most reliable of the talented 2011 GCL bullpen members, he was often nearly unhittable. He logged a 1-0 record, saved a league-leading 12 games and posted a solid 2.30 ERA for a club that just missed the playoffs.

In 31 1/3 innings, Paulino surrendered just 22 hits, including one home run, and nine walks against 35 strikeouts. He was usually deployed when any mistakes could be magnified, mostly called upon in close and late save situations.

Paulino answered the call, faring even better against left-handed batters (.139 batting average) than right-handers (.218). He seemed to get tougher as the season progressed as evidenced by his 2.81 ERA in July dropping to 1.46 in August.

If he had one weakness, it was allowing runners to score if they managed to reach base on him (9.95 ERA with runners in scoring position). It did not hurt the Cardinals, though; he logged only one blown save in 13 opportunities.

"It's nice to know when you go to him at the end of the game, the game is over," Turco said.

Paulino, Creath and Melling were awarded with August 28 promotions to Johnson City, where they remained for the rest of the season.

Honorable mentions

Lefty Tyler Melling posted a stellar 5-0 record and 0.92 WHIP. His ERA was a bit high at 3.86, but he struck out 28 and walked seven in 30 1/3 innings. Melling held GCL opponents to a collective .191 average.

The Cardinals' 39th-round pick this June from the University of Miami (Ohio), the 6-foot-1, 170-pound lefty is "sneaky quick" with his fastball, which sits at 85 and touches 87, Turco said.

Melling is a finesse lefty "who does a nice job of keeping hitters off balance," the manager noted. "He's got good secondary stuff (a sharp curve and a changeup), which makes his fastball more effective."

Brandon Creath was selected by the Cardinals in the 44th round of this June's draft from Embry-Riddle University, where he transferred after two years at Allan Hancock Community College. He fanned 32 and walked 11 in 24 1/3 innings while posting a 2.22 ERA.

A right-hander with an unorthodox and deceptive herky-jerky delivery, Creath has "interesting" stuff, Turco said. Along with a fastball that sits at 94, he throws a curve and a splitter. The manager suggested Creath should have more confidence in his splitter, which he thinks is better than the right-hander's curve.

Drafted out of a Tennessee high school in the 42nd round in 2010, right-hander Cole Brand is the second member of this group to have appeared previously in the GCL. In 2010, the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder fanned 17 and walked just five in his first 22 innings, but had an ERA over five. Brand improved considerably in 2011, with a strikeout to walk ratio of 23:3 and an opposing batting average of .215. His ERA over 28 1/3 innings was 3.81.

Brand's fastball ranges from 87 to 90 mph and he has an effective slider when he stays on top of it. He struggles with occasional lapses of confidence, but when he wants the ball and pitches ahead in the count, he is effective. Unlike some of his "skittish" teammates, Brand had one of his best outings with the roving instructors watching.

19-year-old Cesar Aguilar became a Cardinal via the 14th round of the 2010 draft. This was the right-hander's second GCL campaign after he struck out 25 and walked 13 in 30 2/3 innings in 2010. This year, the California native posted a 2.05 ERA but saw an increase in walks, with 17 to go with 24 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched. GCL hitters batted just .171 against him.

Note: Link to article with links to all articles about previous award winners across the system club by club, schedule for upcoming announcements as well as 2011 team recaps, much of it exclusively for The Cardinal Nation subscribers.

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