Who is the St. Louis Cardinals’ remaining piece from the big John Lackey trade two summers ago?
Corey Littrell was considered by some to be just a throw-in from the Boston Red Sox back on July 31, 2014. Nevertheless, Littrell has surpassed expectations nearly two years removed from having changed organizations.
Littrell, who turned 24 years of age in March, has moved up the Cardinals organization depth chart for left-handed pitchers, especially since shifting to the bullpen permanently in 2016. He is the prototype the organization desires in its lefty relievers - not just a one-batter specialist, but rather one who can be effective against left- and right-handed hitters and be relied upon on for multiple innings and act as a bridge to the closer.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder dominated Texas League hitters in his short time with Springfield before a promotion to Triple-A Memphis on Saturday. During his previous season; the southpaw found timing within his delivery and sharper command followed at High-A Palm Beach.
The grandson of former big-league shortstop Jack Littrell and son of former minor league pitcher Jack Littrell Jr., the youngest Littrell didn't allow his first run until April 28, snapping an 8 1/3 inning scoreless streak to start the season. He issued his first walk a week and a half later on May 9, ending his 14 consecutive innings without a free pass.
Overall, Littrell held a microscopic 1.72 ERA and 0.57 WHIP in 13 games (15 2/3 innings pitched) in his month and a half spent at Double-A. The Cardinal Nation's 34th prospect fanned 14 batters against a lone walk while opposing batters hit just .145 against him. Needless to say, he was an absolute staple in manager Dann Bilardello bullpen before his promotion.
Littrell was lauded for his advanced pitchability coming over from the Red Sox. He worked his way through lineups with five different pitches as a starter - a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a curve, change, and cutter. He has loosened up the cutter over the spring and calls it a slider now, a pitch that he hopes will neutralize lefty bats as a reliever. Littrell continues to feature his entire arsenal, and because of its broadness, he can often pitch backward in counts before showing a fastball.
In his Triple-A debut Saturday night, Littrell gave up a hit but threw a clean frame against Sacramento. Memphis manager Mike Shildt immediately tested his reliability by throwing him back-to-back days; Littrell allowed two hits and walked a rare batter, but fanned three over 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
In the exclusive interview below, Littrell talks about the trade, his first full season with the Cardinals, the preparation process a reliever, and the pitches that have been working for him in his relatively new role.
Derek Shore: Describe your immediate thoughts upon being traded from the Red Sox to the Cardinals.
Corey Littrell: "At first, I didn't know what to expect or what to think. It was a shock to me. I didn't expect it to happen at all. It was my first full season, but once I sat back and realized what happened as the whole situation and everything, I was excited and couldn't wait to get to Palm Beach and start with the Cardinals."
DS: The Cardinals used you as mostly a starter last year. How do you reflect on your first full season with the organization?
CL: "It was definitely one of the toughest for me. At the beginning of the year, I got sent down in spring training from Double-A to the High-A team. That was honestly the first time in my life that I have been sent down from anything, so I took it the wrong way. I just put too much pressure on myself and didn't react the way I should have.
"Once I was able to calm down and get back to controlling what I can control, I was able to find myself again and better myself to become a better pitcher."
DS: As far as a change in organizational philosophy from the Red Sox, was there much of a learning curve in that regard?
CL: "Not really. It's baseball. Everybody will have their way of teaching it, but the Cardinals and Boston are great organizations. There's not much difference, but get outs. That's the name of the game."
DS: Your numbers reflected sharpened command last year. To what do you attribute that improvement?
CL: "I think that was honestly more getting older and maturing a bit. I looked back at some video of mechanics and stuff and made a couple of tweaks. I focused instead of throwing it hard and by people and actually hit my spots. I don't throw it hard enough to blow it by people, so I had to become a command pitcher.
"Once they knew I wasn't able to walk guys, I could get bad swings on pitches that people might normally take."
DS: As a non-roster invitee to big-league spring training camp, what was that experience like?
CL: "Oh, it was awesome. I couldn't have been happier to be there. I learned so much from those guys up there. Just their daily routine and stuff like that. The way they go about their business. Not that I was doing things wrong, but showing me things I could be doing extra. Those guys they are willing to help teach us in like help me learn and get better.
"I kind of took it by surprise because they are big-leaguers and you didn't think they would care about minor leaguers. They really do, and they take care of us. They ask to hang out and stuff like that. It was a great experience."
DS: You possess a broad repertoire of pitches. Were you caught off guard by how early the Cardinals shifted you to the bullpen?
CL: "No, not really. I've been told I was going to be a reliever in the big leagues ever since I got drafted. I love starting and getting moved to the pen last year was definitely new. It's fun; I like it, and I knew coming into this year that was probably what was going to happen to me.
"It's fun. I embrace it. I get to pitch more often and more days. I've been coming into a situation where the starters are doing really well. I don't want them to have a bad outing stat-wise because I come in and give up a run. I take pride in leaving those runners on base. It's definitely fun. There's more adrenaline pumping.
"It's a whole different aspect too; I have that repertoire of pitches. Starting, you only show a couple of them the first couple of innings and you mix in another one. Coming out of the bullpen, I'm bringing them all, so it is fun and I enjoy it."
DS: What is the preparation process like for you as a reliever?
CL: "Honestly, it's just I have my routine I do on a daily basis. You know, you're watching the game and hanging out with the guys down here (in the bullpen). You're joking and everything, and everyone knows when that situation is coming; when you might get the call.
"As soon as that happens, we just start focusing, and everyone else has their different ways of getting ready. Last year, I didn't need that many pitches to get warmed up compared to starting when I thought I needed to throw 100 pitches which in reality, I didn't."
DS: You opened the season (with Springfield) with an 8 1/3 inning scoreless streak and 14 consecutive innings without allowing a walk. What specifically has made that transition so seamless?
CL: "It's just going back to the basics: pounding the strike zone. Guys are going to hit the ball, and I'm going to walk guys. I didn't want to; I was upset that I walked a guy. That's going to happen, but it's all about leaving the walks at a minimum. It's just pitching and what I've been doing my whole life.
"I'm getting better at it each day. I'm able to command my pitches a lot better than I was, say three ago and even last year. Coming in there, throwing strikes knowing that those guys are going to be aggressive - I can use that to my advantage."
DS: What pitches have been working for you, especially in relief?
CL: "Honestly, all of them. I haven't been throwing my curveball that much. It's a show-me, but sometimes I'll throw it to righties. The changeup has been good to both lefties and righties, and the slider has been good.
"It's all about working off your fastball, so it's all about having that fastball command first and being able to pound it inside to the corner to righties has definitely helped me a lot. Before I've been teasing away guy and a changeup as a starter. I've really worked hard on trying to get to my extension side and get in on righties. It's helped a lot."
DS: With a move to the bullpen, you've been able to air it our instead of conserving velocity for multiple innings at a time. Have you seen a velocity bump this year?
CL: "I'm throwing harder. I've been 90-94. I was lucky to hit two or three last year as a starter. That is also me getting stronger and gaining some weight; putting my weight back on. I used to throw a lot harder, but I didn't know where it was going. That is what got me into trouble, and I had to make the adjustment to start pounding the strike zone instead of just try to throw it hard.
"In a correlation of everything, all of it's just helping me, and I don't have to throw as many pitches so that I can air it out a little more."
DS: Is it gratifying to see a fellow lefty like Kevin Siegrist moved to relief at Springfield and go on to thrive in the big leagues?
CL: "That's definitely something. That's a guy I want to be like. He was a guy that took me under his wing in spring training and help me with whatever I needed help with. That's definitely one of the people in the big leagues I look up to. Seeing him and knowing what his path was too and mine is similar.
"He's a couple of inches taller and throws a lot harder than me, but still he's definitely a guy I like to imitate myself after. He's an all-around great guy and a big role model for me."
DS: Is there anything you could improve on as the season progresses?
CL: "I can always get better every day - whether it's pounding the bottom of the strike zone more consistently or just doing my daily thing that's going to help me get better. If a guy says he doesn't need to get better, then it's time for him to move on because that's just baseball. It's a game of failure. You're always going to fail, and there's always going to be something to work on.
Whatever it is, whatever the situation is, or whatever I need to work on, I'm going to do that and just see how it goes."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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