Name: Nathan Culp
DOB: October 9, 1984
In successive years, Culp has started the year with Dascenzo as his manager and Whitehurst as his pitching coach. After just a handful of starts, Culp takes his consistent approach with him to another level.
"For some reason we can't keep him on the team the whole year," Dascenzo joked. "He always does well and keeps going up. That is the main reason we are in this - player development. It is good to see he keeps progressing and moving up the ladder."
After being drafted in 2006, Eugene was where the southpaw called home. That lasted 18 innings across six games before he was promoted to Low-A Fort Wayne. In 2007, Culp started the year with the Wizards. After going 8-3 in 14 starts – proving to be the most consistent pitcher on the team – he was shipped out to High-A Lake Elsinore. Of those 14 starts, 10 produced outings where he allowed two earned runs or less and in his first outing of the year he posted a perfect game over six innings.
"Culp pitched well for us," said Whitehurst. "He is crafty. He can throw four pitches for strikes. He changes speeds. He knows how to pitch.
"Coming from a four-year school and pitching in the (College) World Series helped him a lot."
Culp is a slow starter that needs to find his rhythm early in the game, getting stronger as he regains the feel for pitching. While he allowed 13 earned runs in the first inning of his 14 Fort Wayne starts, the left-hander allowed just 15 earned in every other inning combined.
His leadership set the tone for the Wizards through the first half of the season.
It takes time for Culp to settle into the game, and it might be beneficial for Culp to throw an extra 10 pitches before the game begins. A control pitcher, Culp does not have the pinpoint accuracy during the first inning and will leave balls up in the zone. Four of the nine homers he surrendered across two leagues came in frame one.
After seeing success in Low-A, Culp struggled with the Storm. He gave up double-digit hit totals three times over 12 outings and surrendered 90 hits in 63.2 innings. Being around the zone and lacking a fastball that can blow by a hitter, Culp got away from using a cerebral approach and setting up hitters.
"He just knows how to pitch," Dascenzo added. "There is no question about it. Another word – competitiveness. He doesn't have all the velocity in the world but moves the fastball around. He has a great changeup, and he can throw his breaking ball over or close to the plate to get them to fish for it a little bit."
He was trying to hard and getting hammered over his first five outings. He began to realize that he didn't have to do anything different from that point on and regained the success of earlier in the year. While he would give up hits, he was also pitching out of trouble by limiting the big inning and getting a ground ball out when needed.
"He struggled a little bit early," pitching coach Steve Webber said. "I think the reason for that was just getting settling in at a different environment. Once he settled in and pounded the strike zone consistently, he got a lot of ground balls. I think his changeup improved, and his cutter is a very good pitch for him – a put-away pitch. He gets a lot of ground balls. He ranked in the top of California League.
"To me, after his slow start, I think down the stretch – he pitched the game that got us in the playoffs and won a big game in Lancaster and won a game against San Jose. In those three games, he didn't give up much of anything. A lot of ground balls, a lot of weakly hit balls. He did a great job of mixing up his pitches. The thing that stands out is he did a great job in pressure situations."
At the end of the season, including the playoffs, Culp was at his best, earning him praise for his ability to pitch in the big game.
With a four-pitch deep repertoire – all that he can throw for strikes – Culp can baffle hitters with his different looks. And he even offers a fifth pitch – a cutter that has good tailing action. Besides the traditional fastball and changeup, Culp offers both a slider and curveball.
"His fastball might be a tick below average, but he uses it well with his cutter, slider, curveball and changeup," said Whitehurst. "He spots his fastball real well and that is the big key for him – change speeds, keep the ball down."
His fastball sits mid-80s and touches 88 MPH but he has very good control of the pitch. He can paint the corner and use it to get ahead in the count. He also uses a cutter that has good tailing action – darting down in the zone and getting lots of ground balls.
He uses the changeup – a pitch that seen vast improvement – against right-handed hitters to induce ground ball outs and it became a go-to pitch for the left-hander.
The southpaw is extremely stingy against left-handed hitters. He comes inside without hesitation and keeps the ball down in the zone. Left-handed batters struggle getting good wood on his cutter – a pitch that has improved tremendously over the last year - and they have trouble generating any real lift on his pitches, pounding balls into the ground.
"He has good movement on his fastball – it tails and sinks at times," Webber said. "His changeup is improving and he has his cutter. He is very effective against left-handed hitters."
His breaking pitches are used to keep hitters off-balance, sweeping both his curve and slider across the zone to get different looks.
Culp is a competitor that knows how to pitch. He has to continue to hit his spots to remain effective and there will always be those who wonder how far he can go because of his lack of a true dominant pitch. But, his improvement from year one to year two puts him in the Josh Geer mold.
"He grew on me," Padres former minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "I think he will pitch in the big leagues – maybe as a middle reliever. He is a left-hander and a good competitor. He shows you average stuff."
ETA: Culp has pitched in two levels in both professional seasons and appears destined to begin 2008 in High-A – the same place he ended the year – with a midseason promotion to Double-A likely. Hitting his spots and pitching ahead in the count, Culp figured to fight for playing time at the major league level by 2010.