Name: Ernesto Frieri
DOB: July 19, 1985
Signed as a 17-year old out of Columbia in 2003, Frieri made his debut in the Venezuelan Summer League. A year later, the right-hander dominated the competition in the Dominican Summer League, striking out 59 in 50.1 innings and boasting a 1.43 ERA. He got even better the following season in the Arizona Rookie League, winning the ERA Championship in all of minor league baseball with a 1.17 ERA and 59 more whiffs in 46.1 frames.
Frieri saw seven innings of work between High-A Lake Elsinore and Low-A Fort Wayne this year but the bulk of his workload took place in the Northwest League with the Eugene Emeralds.
The numbers weren't bad at all – he posted a 3.82 ERA in 27 appearances spanning 37.2 innings. He gave up 31 hits and walked 15 while striking out 38.
"Ernie did a pretty good job," 2006 Eugene pitching coach Wally Whitehurst said. "This is his first year pitching out of the bullpen and I think he has adapted to that pretty well."
Perhaps we simply got used to the dominance. But there is more to it.
Frieri has always been able to rely on his fastball – its movement, speed, and command. This year, he wasn't able to pinpoint it nearly as well and his velocity was down to the high-80s after sitting 89-92 MPH the previous season.
He has great movement on his fastball with a lot of late sink but his mechanics faltered some this season and he was not spotting the pitch as well as he had in the past, resulting in some balls being left out over the plate. Normally a ground ball pitcher, Frieri saw 12 of the 31 hits he allowed go for extra bases. While the opposition was hitting .231 off him overall, their ability to tattoo the hits they did amass led to some bigger innings against the reliever.
"He is very hard on himself," Padres' director of international scouting Randy Smith said. "He doesn't give himself a chance for his ability to come out like it should. This guy has a pretty good feel for pitching. He had a great year the year before and last year was ok. He still has a chance to go out and have a good year and move up. He has some life to his fastball and hopefully he makes progress."
He allowed runs in nine of his outings and five times the opposition scored two or more.
His work against the leadoff hitter also hindered his ability to escape trouble. They had a .441 on base percentage, meaning Frieri had to work out of a lot of jams and come from behind in a lot of counts.
"I have to throw my fastball in the strike zone, in the corners, inside, outside, in and out," Frieri said. "I have to be better with my control."
One thing he did extremely well was curtailing the success of lefties. He held left-handed hitters to a paltry .151 average against and that came with the advancement of one pitch.
The lack of bite on his slider has held him back from having more success against right-handers. He has no pitch that truly tails away from them and gets them chasing.
His slider has been a pitch that he has worked on developing but has not come along as he had hoped after being a very good pitch two years ago.
His changeup, however, is much improved from where it was just a year ago and accounts for much of his success against southpaws.
While Frieri works off his fastball and spotting that pitch, his feel for the changeup has improved and he is throwing it much more often than he used to. It is not perfect as he will push the ball rather than throwing it but should continue to advance with a chance to be a plus pitch.
"His fastball moves on every pitch and he throws pretty hard," former catching prospect Luany Sanchez said. "He has a good changeup and his slider is not bad. He has good fastball command and throws inside."
The right-hander has had recurring blister problems, an injury that has hampered him for several years. No one is quite sure the source of the problem but it affects his mechanics and causes him to come up short on his pitches.
"There are still some things he needs to do," Whitehurst added. "He gets under a lot of pitches; he needs to stay on top more. He needs to work on his changeup and slider. It is coming. He is another young kid that has done well."
ETA: Full season ball will be a challenge for Frieri. He has never worked more than 50 innings and what kinds of mental wall will he hit when the dark days of August come. He needs to develop consistency with his changeup and slider while keeping his fastball down in the zone. Confidence will be key for his development and it will be tested in the coming year.