AFL Beat: Rapada Hopes Next Year is No Joke

For a short period of time this past April, left-handed reliever Clay Rapada wondered, albeit a bit skeptically, if he'd cracked the Cubs' 25-man opening day roster out of Spring Training.

What was apparently the result of an error posted on the Cubs' official website showed Rapada as a member of the team's finalized 25-man roster and opening day pitching staff at the time.

False alarm, but that didn't stop many friends and family from picking up on the lead and calling the 25-year-old southpaw for confirmation.

"I hope I'm able to turn that joke into a realistic situation," Rapada says, still sounding not completely certain that it was really a joke after all.

One thing that is certain is Rapada's stock, which is on the rise following a season in which he was both solid and healthy.

After appearing in only 27 games last year due to a strained rotator cuff in Spring Training and later an emergency appendectomy that year, Rapada stayed healthy most all of 2006 and appeared in 61 games, logging over 67 innings from the bullpen between Triple-A Iowa and Double-A West Tenn.

He began this season at Double-A, posting a 0.82 ERA in 43 2/3 innings, and saving 21 games for manager Pat Listach's club. After almost three months there, it was time to move on; not to Chicago, but Des Moines.

In 28 appearances with the Iowa team, Rapada closed with a 3.04 ERA and 21 strikeouts to 15 walks. (At West Tenn, he fanned 45 and walked 10.)

While he was healthy most all year, his season wasn't completely free of an injury. Rapada missed over two weeks in August as the result of a torn fingernail that would eventually heel in time for him to close out the season and get prepared for the Fall League.

One of four Cubs pitching prospects in this year's edition of the AFL, Rapada knows his role is about as clear-cut as they come: it's to get lefties out.

"There's a job to do out there and I've got to do that job," Rapada says from Arizona, where he's allowed one run on one hit to 14 batters faced in four innings for the Mesa Solar Sox, striking out seven and walking two.

"I have to do what I have to do," he says.

While the Cubs agree that Rapada's role is best defined as a lefty specialist, Iowa pitching coach Alan Dunn believes that Rapada needs to show more consistency in the role.

He believes Rapada's final seven outings at Iowa, in which he surrendered no runs and four hits in 6 1/3 innings, is a good indication of his potential.

"If he can come in and get that left-handed hitter out consistently," Dunn says, "he's got a chance to pitch in the big leagues for a long time. He hasn't done it consistently yet, therefore that's where he needs to really get his game going. With his stuff, he really has a chance to do that."

Rapada's arsenal includes a two-seem fastball regularly between 87-91 mph, a slider, changeup, and curveball. He features a low, three-quarters delivery and will "occasionally go over the top, but not much," Dunn said.

"When you have all these standard guys up top, he definitely gives a manager a different option," Dunn said. "Suddenly, you throw this guy and his delivery in the middle and it's almost like when you face a knuckleball pitcher. It throws everything out of whack for the hitters."

In addition to his normal assortment of pitches, Rapada has begun tooling with a cut-fastball designed specifically for use against right-handed batters. The idea first came to him after he was brought up to Iowa back in late June and saw several of the Pacific Coast League's more dangerous hitters.

"When I was pitching at Triple-A, I wasn't able to get right-handers out as much as I was lefties," recalled Rapada, who gave up 18 hits to 61 right-handed batters faced while at Iowa. "But when I'd throw a fastball inside, I would get good results. I figured I could work on a pitch that worked in on righties instead of having all of my pitches go away."

Rapada reports good progress with the development of the pitch so far.

"It's been able to open up the outer part of the plate for me to have more success," Rapada said of the pitch.

And working with the Dodgers' Kenny Howell, the Solar Sox pitching coach in the Fall League, has only helped.

"Kenny has been really good," Rapada said. "I like his attitude and he doesn't get too draining on us physically. He just throws his two cents in there. It's a comfortable atmosphere as far as trying to learn (both) on our own and with another coach."

Asked what has impressed him the most about his competition in the Fall League, Rapada answered, "the bat speed of these hitters."

"It's not too uncommon to see one taken out of the park and off the wall every two innings down here," he said. "That's what has really jumped out at me: the bat speed and the power."

Rapada also downplays the idea that Arizona's hitter-friendly climates can lead to a spike in home runs.

"I know that Arizona is a hitter's league, however it's still a baseball and it's still a bat," he contends. "If the ball goes 500 feet, it's still a long way."

Good thing he understands, because if Rapada is on the major league roster by the end of Spring Training next year and indeed it is no joke or computer error, he's likely to see many of the same hitters he's currently facing in the Fall League at some point in 2007 and beyond.

By the time Fall League participants from each organization were announced back in August for this year's crop, an estimated 46 players that served in the AFL in 2005 had already gone to play in the big leagues in '06.

Rapada would like to be the next to do so, but in the meantime, he doesn't need to convince anyone of his ability.

"He has a tremendous amount of ability," said Listach, Rapada's manager at Double-A this past season and now manager of the Solar Sox.

"It's always a plus to have a left-hander. Everybody is always looking for a left-hander. He had a good year this year and that was good for him. Hopefully, he can build on that out here," Listach said.


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