Name: Ernesto Frieri
DOB: July 19, 1985
The Colombia native was on a course for another non-prospect year. While his numbers were good, the right-handed reliever wasn't taking the advice of the coaching staff and implementing it consistently. It took an ultimatum for the talented pitcher to come to his senses.
"I have had Ernie for three years," former Fort Wayne and current Lake Elsinore pitching coach Wally Whitehurst said. "The two things I worried about was throwing strikes and being able to have a feel for an off-speed pitch. He did both of those this summer."
"He wasn't going to go (to Fort Wayne), Padres former minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "He was going to stay in extended and Grady said, ‘We have to find out about this kid.' He didn't have the Fort Wayne team made. Mike DeMark was going to go to Fort Wayne. Frieri went to Fort Wayne and DeMark ended up going to Lake Elsinore later.
"I remember the day I told Frieri that he was close to being released. I told him in Fort Wayne, ‘If you don't listen to us with your mechanics, you are going to be released.'"
It was one tweak that made the difference. Back in 2005 while pitching for Eugene, Frieri flashed a fastball that hit 92-94 MPH but the 2006 season saw that number dip down to 89-90. As a result, his confidence took a hit – especially considering how much he knew he had in the tank but, for some reason, wasn't able to draw upon the extra ticks.
While he was getting outs in Fort Wayne, the Padres expected more. They wanted to see the strong fastball again.
Asking him to elevate his elbow and throw more over the top, Frieri responded. His fastball, which was being clocked in the 89-91 MPH range jumped as high as 95 MPH and still registered a good amount of movement. What was once a pitch that could lead him in and out of trouble became a true plus pitch. The Padres noticed, and the numbers began backing his dominance.
"We had to close up his front side like we did with Wilton Lopez, so his arm could catch up and he threw a fastball at 95-96," Bryk said. "That is the delivery. I give the kid all the credit. He called me to thank me after the season and I told him, ‘You don't have to thank me. You did it. I just told you what you needed to do because of years of experience.' The kid realized how to repeat his delivery and that helped him out."
"Bill Bryk," Padres director of international scouting Randy Smith credited. "Bryk got him to stay back, break over the rubber instead of out in front and use their legs and get something to push off with – boom, the velocity went up, the breaking ball got better because the arm is in better position and everything else.
"It sounds simple. For some reason, Bill was able to get through to them and it was an immediate takeoff. Bill got them to take their hands over their heads and instead of breaking in front of the rubber they are breaking behind it."
His fastball has late life that explodes into the mitt and some added deception in his delivery makes the pitch a difficult one for hitters to pick up.
After spending most of the year in Low-A, Frieri was promoted to High-A Lake Elsinore for the final month of the year. In 12 relief appearances, spanning 17.2 innings, the right-hander allowed just five hits while striking out 24 batters.
His stuff, which had flashed the filthy ability in the past, was finally living up to the hype.
"Ernie has terrific stuff," Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo said. "He has what I call a quick arm. He has a very deliberate type of delivery. His arm is not the conventional long delivery. He has a quick arm and the ball gets on you. He throws 91-93 but it probably plays 95 or 96. He has touched the mid-nineties at times. His fastball plays three or four miles per hour higher than what the gun reads. I think that is what surprises a lot of hitters when the face Ernie.
"He was tremendous for us last year and again this year. He wants the ball. He wants to throw. You can't help like that."
"The thing that impressed me was the improvement over last year," former Lake Elsinore and current San Antonio pitching coach Steve Webber said. "He really has come leaps and bounds in the last year as far as making progress. I am not sure but I think his velocity has jumped a few miles an hour.
"There is some deception in his delivery and he has an explosive fastball. I think the thing that is going to tell the tale with him is what he is going to do to come up with a secondary pitch to keep hitters honest and off his fastball."
The only runs he incurred came during a spot start – three runs over four innings with two coming home on a two-run homer.
The Padres put Frieri on the 40-man roster, protecting him from eligibility in the Rule 5 Draft. Learning from past mistakes with Joakim Soria, San Diego was not prepared to lose Frieri this year.
Always one to allow fewer hits than innings pitched, Frieri has walked quite a few hitters over the years. Averaging just over 3.00 walks per nine innings, a baserunner is reaching base in just about every outing. While he mitigates disaster and rarely falls prey to the big inning – as witnessed by his 11 hits allowed in 74 at-bats with runners in scoring position during the 2007 season, a .149 average against – hitters generally start cashing in on those opportunities at the higher levels.
Besides the fastball, Frieri throws a curveball and a changeup. Once possessing a slider with plus potential, the Padres shelved the pitch because of the way he gripped the ball. Every time he would throw the slider, Frieri would develop a fingernail problem that affected the slider and the rest of his pitches.
He is now focused on a curveball – giving hitters a different look. The hook is a pitch he can throw for strikes but is not a consistent pitch that can get outs. He will occasionally hang one – and that is where most of the hard hit balls come from. Giving up the slider in favor of the curveball has been a bit of a challenge since the grip and delivery of the pitch have changes – and the slider came so natural to him.
His changeup is an below average pitch that offers plus capability when he is playing off the heater. He does not use the changeup as often as his stuff dictates he should and gets by a lot on his fastball – a trait Frieri knows must change to have success at the higher levels.
The focus this past off-season and during Spring Training will be on making the changeup a more important tool in his repertoire. He never uses the pitch in tight games or a crucial situation where he needs an out and has to use the development time in spring to bring the changeup up to par.
"He showed an average changeup, his curveball still needs some work but he got it in the zone, and his fastball just exploded," Whitehurst said. "By the time he got up to Elsinore he was at 95 MPH. We saw some 94's and 93's. You move up a level and the adrenaline starts going.
"He had one heck of a year. He is on a prospect list for everyone in the organization."
With a short delivery, the ball gets on the hitter in a hurry. He breaks his hands near his chest, quickly cocks his arm back, lets it hang there for a second while his body catches up and his quick arm action does the rest.
Frieri has a short step towards the plate with a low leg kick, giving him a good line and balance to home. His arm action generates the speed with its whip-like action coming over the top with his elbow elevated to get the best downward plane and action on his pitches.
Competitive by nature, Frieri loves to take the ball when the game is on the line. He feeds off the adrenaline and his attitude has changed over the years. Once short on confidence, Frieri goes after hitters and is not afraid to challenge them.
"He is a good kid with no fear," Bryk added. "He had a great winter ball. You lose a guy like Soria the year before – it can happen. Guys like Wilton Lopez and Ernesto Frieri can move fast after they learn to repeat their deliveries."
ETA: On the Padres 40-man roster, Frieri will likely begin the year in Double-A. The development of his secondary pitches will be crucial this season with an eye on making a run at a bullpen job in 2009. More than likely, Frieri will be in Portland to begin the 2009 season and make his debut sometime during the season.
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