Keeping Healthy the Key For Columbus Pitchers

At the beginning of the season the Columbus starting staff included five of the brighter prospects in the Dodgers system. Since then one seems to be turning out just as advertised, one did until he was backed off, two have been shelved for the season and one seems to have hit a wall.

That initial list included Scott Elbert, Blake Johnson, Jesus Castillo, Javy Guerra and Brandon Weeden. Castillo appeared in just six games, holding opposing batters to a .205 average to sport a 2.96 ERA before he went out with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Guerra worked in 11 games, pumped his fast ball up to the mid-90's, only to follow Castillo out to undergo the same procedure.

Meanwhile, Elbert, last season's first draft pick, has been making steady strides forward. His fast ball resides in the low 90's while his slider and changeup are getting better. He's learning more and more to go after hitters, something he didn't always do last season at Ogden and has sparkled, throwing a shutout in his latest effort. He's currently 5-5, 3.23 with opponents batting just .227.

Righthander Blake Johnson, the second-round pick in 2004, was doing even better as witness an 8-3, 3.21 mark. His fast ball reaches the mid-90's and he possesses a big curve. However, arm strain has caused him to be sidelined on more than one occasion. He currently hasn't pitched since early July.

Brandon Weeden, who came from the Yankees in the Kevin Brown trade, is the one who's having trouble hitting his stride. Although he has the requisite pitches, he hasn't won since June 2 because of the not unusual pattern of falling behind batters, then serving up a lollypop with dire results. He's 2-7, 5.06.

With all the injuries, the Catfish, whose pitching coach is former big leaguer Glenn Dishman serving his first year in the organization, have often turned to the bullpen. No one has served them better than rookie righthander Chris Malone, signed late last summer as a free agent after sparkling in the Alaskan Collegiate League. He isn't overpowering but does throw in the high 80's-low 90's range, has an excellent curve and circle change and keeps batters off stride. The result is an 8-4, .3.83 mark with the opposition held to a .233 mark.

Then, there's Zach Hammes, who's still seeking consistency in his third year with the franchise. A second-round choice in 2002, he's big (6-6, 225) and often that's the problem as he isn't compact enough to smooth out his delivery which tends to get out of whack. This season, he started in the bullpen, then returned to the rotation where he's been spotty (3-4, 4.81). He has the pitches if he can put them together often enough.

Lefthander Chad Bailey came off the disabled list but never seemed at full strength (1-3, 5.16), then injured his arm so is probably gone for the season, too. Some others who started the year rehabbing injuries have since joined the team and could prove vital in the late going.

Jarod Plummer, who throws hard with excellent control (only two walks in 22.1 innings) is one who's done some starting while both Steve Nelson and Liam O'Flaherty are in the 'pen. Nelson, a native of Nova Scotia, was a starter here two years ago but missed all last season with Tommy John surgery. He's doing well enough (2-1, 3.79). O'Flaherty, an Australian lefthander, is another who rehabbed all last year after an elbow operation. He's probably the softest tosser in the organization, barely reaching 85 on the gun, yet spots the ball and gets outs (2-0, 3.21).

The latest is Dimas Reina, a Venezuelan righthander who's been around since 1999. He 's pitched as high as Jacksonville before his surgery so now has been slotted here to continue his rehabilitation. He's thrown well in two appearances, one a start.

Wesley Wright is listed at 5-11 but that's being kindly. What isn't small is his fast ball which he burns up there in the mid-90's. He has fanned seven in succession once this season. A set-up man, he sports a 2.36 ERA and has opponents hitting a measly .198, yet is only 0-4 to show for it. Brian Akin, a righthander, has had good and bad moments (1-1, 4.22).

When lefty Carlos Alvarez was promoted to Jacksonville, Albenis Castillo, a Panamanian righthander with good natural stuff, has taken on the bulk of the closer's duties. Like Wright, his won-loss mark (1-4) is misleading for he has a 2.95 ERA.

Lately he's getting more and more help from righthanded rookie Kyle Wilson. Signed late last summer out of UCLA, he ran into hard times at Vero Beach, was dropped back, struggled at first but lately is throwing very well. He's 0-2, 2.50 with opposing batters held down to a .150 mark.

The Catfish didn't fare well in the first half ,and are holding their own in the second. If they can keep enough arms healthy, they could figure in the mix down the stretch.