Starting pitcher Brad Watson picked up five of those 31 victories and had his team in position to win a number of others as he toughened up down the stretch. The right-hander receives the nod as The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Gulf Coast League Cardinals Starting Pitcher of the Year for 2011.
Ramon Ulacio, Stalyn Lopez and Dail Villanueva all pitched well in most of their starts, but none exhibited the poise of Watson. He went 5-1 overall, but finished especially strongly as his team made a push for the playoffs. Watson won the last four of his eight starts and allowed two runs or less in his last six.
Watson, who turned 22 toward the end of the season, does not throw as hard as some of the others, but was the most consistent with his command. Like many of baseball's great pitchers, Watson seemed to get tougher with runners on base. That is one big reason why he led all GCL Cardinals starters with a 2.22 ERA despite giving up 51 hits in 48-2/3 innings.
The other main reason? Watson walked only five batters all season, while fanning 37.
His sinking fastball sits at 88 mph and touches 90, and he also throws a changeup with tailing action and a slider. Watson did not serve up a gopher ball all season long.
"He's been very good for us," Turco said. "When his sinker is working he can be dominating at this level and I can see him doing it at higher levels," the manager predicted.
Watson is a tough competitor with more poise than is usually found is pitchers at his experience level. "Consistency is the key to his effectiveness, staying down in the zone with his sinker and slider," the skipper noted.
Watson joined the Cardinals organization as their 37th round selection in the 2011 draft from Wartburg College in Iowa.
A 20-year-old Venezuelan, Ramon Ulacio, made the big step up to the GCL after two summers with the Venezuelan Summer League Cardinals. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-hander had a 38:20 strikeout to walk ratio over his first 58 1/3 innings of play in the US. His ERA was 2.93 over a dozen starts.
Ulacio features a fastball that sits in the 90-92 mph range as well as a curve (74-79) and palm ball (71-77) and was especially effective going low and inside.
19-year-old left-hander Stalyn Lopez moved to the GCL after pitching the previous two years in the DSL. The 5-foot-9, 160-pounder bounced back from a rough 2010 during which he walked more than a batter per inning and yielded six home runs in 31 innings.
In 2011, Lopez walked a batter every two innings, 24 in 47 2/3 frames. He struck out 31, had an ERA of 3.40 while opposing hitters batted .264 against him.
The Dominican lefty had been a mystery to Turco before the season. "I didn't know what kind of command he'd have, but especially I didn't know what kind of worker he is," Turco said. Lopez impressed Turco with his hard work and willingness to accept coaching.
"He works extremely quickly with a better tempo, and that has helped his control, Turco said. Lopez has a fastball that sits at 90-91 mph and a good curveball, but he needs to continue to improve his command and consistency.
Lopez has matured and gained poise on the mound. "There was a game we kicked the ball all over the place and he never flinched," Turco recalled.
Dail Villanueva, a 21-year-old lefty from Venezuela, had a comparable challenge last year as Lopez, having issued 32 free passes in just 36 innings to go along with a 7.00 ERA in his second season in the VSL.
This time, his walks were better, but he still issued 19 free passes in 47 innings. Villanueva fanned 43, logged a 3.64 ERA and .229 opponent batting average against in 2011.
Villanueva possesses a fastball which touches 94 mph and sits on 90 with late life, along with a curveball (70 to 77 mph) and changeup. Turco said what impressed him most about Villanueva was his ability to battle and give him five solid innings every time out, even when the starter did not have his best command.
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.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column on Thursdays at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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