A player who struggled in Low-A ball a year ago suddenly found himself undefeated through the first two months of this season.
Conversely, those who had early success in their young careers (such as last year's award winner, Sean Gallagher) duplicated those results at higher levels of competition this season.
Then, there were those who did more than just duplicate, but dominate; those who took their game to a whole new level; those who showed up to spring camp back in mid-to-late February with a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish in 2006.
Left-hander Donald Veal was one of those pitchers.
When the 21-year-old Veal first reported to camp, he wasn't sure what to expect in his first Spring Training since being drafted in the second round the previous year. And in spite of the southpaw's success this year, 2006 didn't start off the way Veal wanted it to.
Assigned to Class-A Peoria at the start of the minor league season, he allowed seven runs in his first nine innings with the team before winning five of his last six decisions there.
Having posted a 2.69 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings with the Chiefs, Cubs Farm Director Oneri Fleita felt it was time to challenge Veal, who thus earned a promotion to Daytona where his numbers have only strengthened.
In 14 starts with the team, Veal has a 1.67 ERA and .170 average against in 80 2/3 innings. Across the organizational leader board, he has the lowest ERA of any full-season minor league starter at 2.16 in 154 1/3 innings, the most strikeouts with 174, and the lowest average against at .175.
"When you have great years like he's had," Fleita said, "what do you say about him? The guy was awesome from start to finish."
As head of player development, Fleita believes much of Veal's early success can be attributed directly to work ethic, in particular his off-season regime.
"For a guy to have the first half he had in Peoria and then finish up so strong, it really showed us how hard he prepared himself last winter," Fleita said. "That's what you hope these players realize when they come out of their first year of play: that the work required of them in the off-season really allows them to stay strong like Donnie has."
And while Veal has strongly responded to the Cubs' aforementioned mid-season challenge, he's already thinking ahead to the next one.
"I can't see myself going up to the big league club just yet," Veal says modestly. "But I'll finish the season here and get ready for next season by working hard. If I do, I figure to be in Double-A at least."
Double-A or higher should be a foregone conclusion. And if Veal has made his final start of this season, he'll go out with a bang. A product of Pima (Ariz.) Community College and formerly the University of Arizona, Veal struck out a career-high 12 batters on Friday night in Daytona's 10-0 loss to Brevard County that has left the team's post-season hopes further in jeopardy.
The Cubs travel to Brevard Saturday for a doubleheader and will close out the regular season on Sunday. The team is currently 35-30 in the second half of league play and trail first-place Palm Beach by two games.
Donald Veal has the lowest ERA, average against, and most strikeouts for any full-season starter in the Cubs' farm system this year.
Veal went 6 1/3 innings against Brevard on Friday, allowing two hits and three walks to 23 batters faced. He threw one wild pitch and left with his sixth no-decision since joining the team from Peoria.
While it was arguably the most dominant outing of Veal's young career, it was also one of his more unusual ones.
"The odd thing about it was that he really kept sticking with the high fastball over and over again, and kept getting batters to swing at it," Daytona broadcaster Derek Ingram said of Veal's performance. "His curve wasn't working, so he kept bringing the heat. He might have had the most movement we've seen on it this year."
Veal's fastball registers in the low 90's on most occasions. He's hit 93 mph at times this season, and Ingram believes his stay in the Florida State League and Daytona has generally run its course.
"Let's be honest," Ingram said, "the guy has been better than this league for quite some time. I think we've kept him around hoping we could make it to the playoffs and he's given us a chance to do so. If we'd been eliminated a couple of weeks ago, I think he'd definitely have been moved up again."
Ingram also believes Veal was the most consistent pitcher in the Florida State League all season – no small task when stacked up against top prospects such as Sean Gallagher, Matt Garza and Mike Pelfrey, who have all passed through the league at some point or another this year.
"I don't want to show any disrespect to anyone, but Donnie Veal was probably the most consistently good pitcher, game by game, that we've seen in the Florida State League this season," Ingram said. "Every time out, you knew he wasn't going to give up many runs. The word ‘consistency' is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Donnie."
Common thought amongst most pitchers is that no season is ever measured by how you start out; rather how you finish up. Veal is no different in that regard.
After the pair of shaky outings to open the year at Peoria, he made some necessary adjustments and hasn't shown signs of slowing down since. (He allowed no earned runs in his first three Daytona starts.)
"After my first couple of starts in Peoria, I changed a couple of things," Veal recalled. "I started trusting myself a little more and letting the ball go. Things started to turn around for me. My curveball started to come around and I started throwing my changeup a little more."
Veal's changeup isn't an overly new addition to his repertoire, but he only began to put more emphasis on it last season at Boise while pitching in the Northwest League.
This season, he's throwing it more than ever and the results have been there.
"I have thrown it a lot more," Veal admitted when asked of the biggest difference between his season to date in 2006 as opposed to '05. "But equally, I've also been getting ahead of batters a lot more this year and just throwing first-pitch strikes."
For that, Veal credits Daytona pitching coach Tom Pratt with encouraging him to be more aggressive early in counts. He also credits Pratt for helping calm his nerves while on the mound and throughout game day.
"I get way too excited for game day," Veal admitted. "I have a lot of energy flowing, which tends to hurt me at times. T.P. has helped me with a lot of things, like realizing that my stuff is good enough and just throwing strikes to get ahead of guys."
All Pratt would say is that he recognizes Veal's potential and high ceiling, offering this tidbit on the southpaw last month:
"He'll throw some fastballs with a little late life to them. He'll touch 93 and stay in the 90-91 range, but he's very deceptive with good arm action. He's very tall and throws on a good down plane, so the hitters don't see the ball very well when it comes out of his hand."
If there's any concern with Veal, it's likely to lie within his walk totals. He's issued 82 free passes (most in the farm system) in his 154-plus innings this season, but has an explanation for it.
"I try to climb the ladder," Veal offers. "If the guy is going to chase a ball out of the zone, I'm definitely going to try and get it up there. That's the reason why I have so many walks. I'll sometimes go ahead 0-2 and then try to throw a ball up and get someone to chase it. A lot of guys hit the ball in the air no matter where you throw it. I'm working on getting the ball on the ground more, but it hasn't [worried] me a lot."
With over 150 innings under his belt in his first full professional season, Veal and the Cubs understandably have no plans for Winter Ball or even the organization's annual Instructional League in the coming months.
"He's had a lot of innings this year for his first (full) year out there," Fleita said. "Now he's got a chance to go home and work again like he did this past off-season."
Veal still makes his home in Arizona during the winter months. Heading into 2006, his only goal was to be in the best physical shape possible for the upcoming season ahead.
"I wanted to have my shoulder and back strong," Veal said. "I worked out four times a week and knew I had to be ready from the get-go, because I usually struggle to start off the season and then finish really strong. I didn't want to do that this season."
"There's nothing to do in the off-season, so why not work out?" he contends.
The Cubs are just happy Veal understands the importance of the physical factor.
"I hope he builds on this," Fleita said. "Obviously he's off to a good start. This is where it all starts. You have to take care of yourself in the off-season and you've got to prepare, so that you can finish strong and be the kind of guy that he looks like he's going to be."
Inside The Ivy is pleased to name Donald Veal our Pitcher of the Year for 2006. We congratulate him on a fine season.