Padres Prospect Report: JJ Trujillo

The San Diego Padres have made the Frontier League their stomping grounds over the last several years. JJ Trujillo was among the first to join the Padres system and he made his way up through the system to join the big club for a brief stint in 2002. Now he is working towards getting back. <br><br> "The best story from the last couple of years in Mobile is JJ Trujillo," Tom Nichols said.

"A great story and unfortunately I don't know if the ending is going to be as positive as we thought it might be," Nichols continued. "We had JJ Trujillo – he was a junior college walk on who came as a second baseman, who then went to an NAIA school as a walk on. One of only two walk-ons on his NAIA team and went to school as a second baseman. Finished up his college career and became a pitcher and developed a submarine style delivery as a pitcher and didn't have a chance to get drafted or play for an affiliate team so he went and played a year of Independent baseball in the Frontier League, which is the lowest level of Independent baseball that is out there. The quality of play of that league, it is not one of the higher Independent Leagues. He went and played one year of Independent baseball and developed the submarine style of delivery and really was effective."

In 39 games spanning 45.2 innings, Trujillo allowed just eight earned runs playing for Johnstown of the Frontier League in 1999. His 1.58 ERA and 1.18 WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitched) sparked the interest of the Padres after the season.

"The Padres signed him and in his very first year in the Padres system or as a affiliated pro pitcher, he put up the fourth highest saves totals in minor league baseball history, which is just unbelievable," Nichols added. "That first year he had 42 saves and that was 2000 with Fort Wayne and in 2001 he split between Lake Elsinore and Mobile and then came to Mobile in 2002 and was our closer."

The Padres offered him a free-agent deal, dispatched him to Fort Wayne in the Midwest League in 2000 and watched in amazement as he rang up a league-record 42 saves--the fourth-highest total in minor league history.

Trujillo actually got better in his first pro season of ball in 2000. Playing for the Fort Wayne Wizards. Besides his 42 save total, Trujillo allowed 11 earned runs in 74.2 innings of work in his first pro season. His WHIP was a commanding .86. To put that in perspective, Pedro Martinez had a WHIP of 1.04 this year and John Smoltz had a WHIP of .87. Only Eric Gagne and his .69 WHIP among those who qualify would have beated Trujillo.

That play warranted Trujillo a promotion to Lake Elsinore in 2001. After posting an ERA of under 2.00, 1.86 to be precise, in 29 innings of work, Trujillo was elevated to the Mobile squad. He continued his domination while posting the highest ERA total of his career up until that point, a 2.65 mark in the Southern League in 51 innings of work. His WHIP remained steady at an impressive 1.25. That was just a tease of what was to come.

"Clifford Bartosh was our closer in the second half (of 2001), JJ the first half," Nichols explains. "JJ gave up three earned runs in 31 games with Mobile in 2002.

"Three earned runs in 31 games and most of those games were games in which he came in to pitch one inning and protect a small lead! Most were high-pressure situations. Here is a guy who is throwing 82-83 miles an hour and making hitters just look silly with his submarine style delivery."

His ERA, a miniscule 0.66 for the season, as Trujillo pitched in 41 innings, allowing just 25 hits and striking out 49. His WHIP of .90 in Double-A was simply exceptional.

Trujillo was on pace to break the Southern League mark for saves in a season, he had 20, of 36 before his promotion to Triple-A Portland.

The 18 game stint in Portland marked the first time Trujillo showed signs of struggling. In 27 innings he allowed 13 earned runs. Still he was promoted to the Padres. They were drooling after seeing him mock Double-A batters.

"He got a brief chance in San Diego and his first game as a big leaguer, his first batter that he faced hit a walk off home run against him. That was Tony Batista of the Baltimore Orioles. First batter he faced in the big leagues hits a walk off homer. I don't think JJ is quite the same since."

Trujillo pitched just 2.2 innings in the Majors, getting Shea Hillenbrand out in one appearance, Desi Relaford out in another, allowed two hits and three walks against Boston, only getting Pedro Martinez out, and allowed one hit against Seattle. His ERA for the year, 10.13 and his WHIP a dreadful 3.75.

"He wasn't the same pitcher this season," says Nichols. "In 2002, he was automatic. He had I think 20 saves. He would have left the Southern League saves record in the dust. He had 20 saves by early June and the record was 36. He might have had 50 saves if he had stayed with us all season. He was that kind of pitcher. Automatic, it was an eight inning game cause we knew if we had the lead through eight, the game was over."

In 27 games for the Beavers, Trujillo allowed 20 earned runs to post a 5.63 ERA. He allowed six home runs, more than he had allowed over any full season in the minors. His WHIP was still a solid 1.32, but the luck has seemingly run out. He was sent back to Mobile for the second half of the season where his ERA settled down to a respectable 3.70.

"I hope that things will get turned around for him," said Nichols. "He might be another case where change might be needed because he has gotten his chance, then wound up back in Double A again. That is never a good thing."

"We are talking about a pitcher who will be 28 this season," said one NL scout. "Sure he can blow away some of the low level batting that has never seen someone like him, but no one can be effective over the long haul with a fastball that tops out at 85 unless he his hiding the ball in his pocket until it shoots out. He had his window. Consider it closed."

"The JJ Trujillo we saw in 2002, no one could have convinced me that that guy could not pitch in the big leagues at that time," Nichols added. "This is a guy who came out of absolute nowhere to get to the big leagues. It has been the most unlikely, Cinderella story and got the big leagues and now he is trying to get back."

At 28, his chances are becoming limited. His career minor league WHIP of 1.11 and ERA of 2.46 are nothing to be ashamed of. When he had the chance to prove himself, even at the Triple-A level, he did not meet expectations. Against better competition and seasoned hitters his ERA sits closer to 5.00. The challenge this season for Trujillo is to show the promise he had in 2002, otherwise the end of the line could be coming.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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