If it's true that anything worth having is worth working for, then it's a safe bet that Bulls southpaw Alex Torres will be a pitching treasure eventually.
Since being signed in January 2005 by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, he has worked his way through the ups and downs of the minors and ended up in Tampa Bay after being dealt as part of a deal for Scott Kazmir. Torres has proven to be a valuable young pitcher for the organization, as he earned a ranking as the 6th-best prospect in the Rays system after last season (according to Baseball America).
However, that designation as a mere prospect carries a lot of weight when referring to the 24- year old Venezuelan. He has a 1-3 record with a team-second-to-worst 7.47 ERA so far this season, and a noticeable lack of fastball command leaves him with a team-high 9.2 BB/9 ratio.
Despite being a work-in-progress, Torres still has the enthusiastic support of Durham pitching coach Neil Allen who has guided him to switch from a conventional wind-up to pitching from the stretch full-time.
"I like where we are right now with Alex, and yes, we have an uphill battle," said Allen. "But at the same time I like the idea that we're in the stretch with him. It allows him to concentrate more on the release point as opposed to having to worry about both the windup and the stretch. In the stretch position it's so much easier for him to get into his load and it allows his arm to get into a consistent release point, and without a consistent release point we can't be consistent in throwing strikes, and if we don't throw strikes we can't build confidence."
Assessing the lefty's progress, Allen noted that working with Torres right now consists of "taking two steps forward and one step back — we've got to get on that forward lunge here for a while, but we do see some good things happening."
The young lefty certainly has the stuff to blow away opposing hitters, as he lead the Southern League in strikeouts in 2010 during his time with the Montgomery Biscuits and led all Triple-A pitchers in the same category last season. But after beginning the season in the starting rotation and turning in five lackluster starts (with 20 earned runs given up on 19 hits), Torres was moved to the bullpen in early May. Since that move, he has pitched 20 innings and, despite not earning any saves so far, his ERA has dropped by almost six runs.
"I feel really comfortable now, I feel really good," said Torres on his move from starter to reliever. "I'm starting to throw the ball a lot better now and I think it's a good move to try to get more confident. I feel more relaxed in the stretch and a lot stronger. I'm finding the strike zone a lot more consistently, plus my slider is working a little better recently."
Coach Allen backed this claim, affirming that he's "very happy with where we are with the slider — it's coming along very nicely and he's throwing it much more for strikes at this point in time." As far as the rest of Torres' pitch arsenal, Allen said that the fastball command is "still erratic" despite his obvious arm strength and that the changeup is still his bread and butter.
The second half of this season will be a showcase for Torres' retooled game and just how well he can overcome his shaky 2012 start. As part of a bullpen that has allowed only 23 of its 74 inherited runners to score and earned saves in 15 of their 22 opportunities, Torres can bet on healthy competition from his teammates and hope that they are the sharpening steel to the keen blade that is his game.
Ben Christoph is the Durham beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @btchristoph
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