Prospect #5 - RHP Chris Withrow

There seems to be a dark cloud hanging over the Dodgers' first round draft picks. Some flared brightly and then faded due to injury; Bobby Valentine, Jason Repko, Darren Dreifort, Steve Howe. Some reached their peak with other clubs, Rick Sutcliffe, Paul Konerko, and a large number of them just never reached the heights predicted for them.

Injury has been the main culprit recently, holding back Greg Miller, Blake DeWitt, Bryan Morris, Chris Withrow and Ethan Martin. However, all of the above are still young enough to bounce back and enjoy a strong Major League career.

Dodger fans will have the privilege of watching both Withrow and Martin make mini-comebacks during the 2009 season since each of them had injuries in their first seasons that have been overcome. Now comes the struggled to reach the ceiling expected of them.

Withrow rose in stature to become the best pitcher in the Midland, Texas, area, then one of the best in the entire state and finally one of the best in the nation.

The Dodgers drafted him with their first selection in the 2007 draft and he made his debut in the Gulf Coast League July 7. A tender arm limited him to only six games and four innings but he struck out 13 in nine innings, giving glimpse of things to come.

Then the black cloud-thing rolled in. In 2008 his spring was delayed because of a bizarre injury -- a cut suffered while handling a snorkeling mask. When he was about ready to return, he was sidelined with a sore elbow that kept him out until July.

Obviously, the Dodgers weren't going to take any chances with their first-rounder, but this wasn't a case of an organization being overly cautious. Withrow needed to shut it down for as long as he did to ensure his health, both short- and long-term.

"It doesn't matter what round he was taken in, or how old he is, if he's hurting and not feeling good, you need to shut him down," Dodgers Farm Director De Jon Watson said. "It's a tough game to play even when you're feeling good. You want him to be in the best possible condition to be able to compete. I trust our medical staff and base it on their recommendations. We'll sit down and talk about it and go from there."

So Withrow spent most of the year rehabbing in Inland Empire. It is unusual for a teenager on the disabled list to spend his time at that level, but it worked well. First, there was the weather. Inland Empire's warm weather is more helpful to a sore elbow than perhaps Great Lakes would have been. Second, former Dodger Charlie Hough is one of the best pitching coaches in the franchise and the Dodgers are comfortable with him working with their top arms.

"Charlie is one of our best instructors," Watson said. "It's a benefit for both sides. It was a good league for him to be in."

Withrow did make four relief appearances near the end of the season with Inland Empire, allowing two runs on two hits and six walks over four innings. From there, he was in good enough shape to participate almost fully in instructional league play last fall.

His fastball touched 98. And his two seamer has considerable sink in on a right handed batter. He has the feel for both his curve and change but they are still a work in progress.

"He was healthy enough to pitch in instructs. He missed a turn there, but the arm strength was fine," Watson said.

He seems to be back to where he was a year ago. He'll come to the Dodgers' new Spring Training facility in Glendale, Ariz., again ready to truly get his pro career underway, this time as a right-hander about to turn 20 years old.

"It's a question of how he comes in and how he competes," Watson said. "Coming into spring, if he's healthy and good to go -- like he was at instructs -- then he's got a chance to go to Great Lakes or Inland Empire."

Great Bloodlines
Baseball long has been a family enterprise for the Withrows of Odessa, Tex. Perhaps they should print business cards printed on "Withrow & Son - We're all in the game" or some similar slogan.

It began with father Mike, who was a standout pitcher for the University of Texas whose teams have produced, among so many others, the legendary Roger Clemens and stars like Burt Hooton. Mike certainly seemed on his way to the big leagues, too, but after reaching Double A, he blew out his shoulder and that was it as far as his playing the game was concerned.

But certainly not his participation. He went back to Odessa, Texas, a job and family, but as soon son Chris was old enough to toddle, he was out tossing a ball around with his dad. And Mike has remained his mentor as well as to countless other kids in the area.

Not that Chris was always a pitcher. No, he was for a time, a catcher among other positions. He's always been able to swing a bat quite well- well enough that more than one scout talked about drafting him as a position player because they thought he could hit his way to the big leagues.

Chris even abandoned pitching for one summer around his sophomore year in high school but as his arm strength increased, he got back to it earnest with Dad coaching. Not that Mike was benign Santa Claus of a coach. No, Chris admits he was stern and demanding- and successful.

Chris was playing on a summer team when the head coach was offered the job at Midland Christian in the nearby town. He asked Mike, who had been helping out, to join him as his pitching coach. In turn they asked Chris to consider transferring there.

"It was a very tough decision to make, "Chris recalls, "because it meant leaving all my friends. I finally decided to do it and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made."

So, began a ritual of rising around five each morning for the 20-minute drive across the plains of West Texas to Midland. (and if you want to know what the area looks like, catch the movie- not the TV version- of "Friday Night Lights." It was filmed in Odessa. And, no, Chris isn't in it although some of his friends are in the crowd scenes at football games and the Odessa cheerleaders were used.)

As he improved, the scouts were out in force but he had no idea, he says, that the Dodgers would be the team that would ultimately select him. "I talked to a number of team but don't recall talking to the Dodgers before the draft. Maybe they talked to my agent but not to me."

Before the draft he had accepted a scholarship to Baylor, which he said was no ploy. "It was a very real option. We set our sights high. I value the college experience and I'm sorry I'll miss it."

But first-round money lured him away from that to the Gulf Coast League. "Pro ball was just about what I expected. It's very demanding.

"I think learning to pitch every five days is one of the toughest parts because we didn't do that. And you learn in a hurry that you just can't throw your fast ball up there because everybody here can hit a fast ball. You have to keep it low and learn to hit spots."

It was, he says, an overall great experience. "It's an organization full of good people and my teammates have been great. I regret that I didn't pitch more but I only have myself to blame for that.

At his best he throws easily but with authority, looking every inch how a first-rounder should. He's not as refined as Kershaw was at this stage but he reminds one of how Billingsley threw early in his career. "Maybe even better," commented one scout.

And he is working to move to the next level. For that I'd like to thank all my coaches." And, of course, there's always Dad for advice. You never get too old for that," he said.

Chris Withrow

year  team  w-l  era  gm  gs  in  h bb  so  whip
2007  GCLg  0-0  5.00  6   4   9  5  4  13  1.00
2008  IEmp  0-0  4.50  4   0   4  2  6   1  2.00
------------------------------------------------
Totals      0-0  4.85 10   4  13  7 10  14  1.31 

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