Name: Wilton Lopez
DOB: July 19, 1983
While Joakim Soria had a terrific rookie season with the Kansas City Royals as a Rule 5 draft pick and Jose Ceda is poised to make the Chicago Cubs, the Padres have not been successful bringing talent from South America to the states.
The efforts have increased tenfold over the last few years and the fruits of that labor are now visible – although many of the young prospects remain at the lower levels.
Lopez was signed by the Padres in November of last year with one part luck and one part hard work.
Aristides Sevilla was a name no one could find on the ledgers. Without knowing who he was, the Padres were unable to sign him.
Investigative efforts of Juan Lara produced a breakthrough when they found a Wilton Lopez from Nicaragua whose full name was Wilton Aristides Sevilla Lopez. Lopez was on the ‘voluntary-retired' list of the New York Yankees. After Lopez' agent asked for the player to be reinstated, the Yankees obliged and then released him, opening the door for the Padres to make their move.
"It was Juan – the agent contacted Juan and Juan contacted me," Padres director of international scouting Randy Smith recalled. "We had Robert Rawley in Nicaragua to see him. We had to get him off the voluntary-retired list and we jumped on it. It was a good job of everybody staying on top of what was going on. Juan deserves a lot of credit and Robert happened to be there to see him pitch. We think we got ourselves a big leaguer out of it."
Beginning the year with a month already gone in the season, Lopez joined the Fort Wayne Wizards. Over 22 appearances, he yielded runs in six games before moving up to the California League.
He pounds the strike zone," former Fort Wayne and current Lake Elsinore pitching coach Wally Whitehurst said. "He can get his fastball anywhere from 91 to 95 MPH with power sink, as long as he stays on top of the ball.
"He has a bright future for a kid – he has two our three walks in 30 some innings. He threw strikes and as I said, our philosophy is pitch efficiency, pounding the strike zone, pitching to contact and ground ball mentality. He did that."
With Lake Elsinore, the right-hander out of Nicaragua was less than stellar – giving up 35 hits in 20.2 innings and posting a 6.10 ERA.
Despite the hard luck in the California League, the stuff was there to dominate.
"I think for him it is a matter of putting everything together," former Lake Elsinore and current San Antonio pitching coach Steve Webber said. "He has to pitch off his fastball – a sinkerball pitcher – if he can continue to develop his secondary pitches to compliment his fastball, he has a great future ahead of him."
He is the epitome of efficiency and strike-throwing. Over two leagues and 50.2 innings, Lopez walked just three batters. And most of his outs come via the ground ball.
"You are talking to the guy who stuck his neck out in a noose more than anybody," former Padres minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "It happened in August. He was just another guy in extended and then he went to Fort Wayne and was OK. He was throwing sidearm in Lake Elsinore and I said to (pitching coach Steve) Webber that we have to get his arm up. We moved his arm up and his 90 MPH fastball went to 94 and 95 with sink. That is why his numbers aren't great; we didn't fiddle with his delivery until August."
Lopez uses a heavy sinking fastball to get outs. He is always around the strike zone and sticks most of his pitches in the lower half – mainly due to the drop of his fastball. His sinking fastball comes in at 92-94 MPH and its late life gets hitters rolling over, smacking weak grounders to the middle of the diamond.
The right-hander also has a four-seam fastball he uses when he is behind in the count to even things up – capable of hitting 95 MPH with the pitch.
He also features a slider and a changeup – both pitches are in the developmental stage and have, at times, shown positive signs. Getting them up to snuff will be a huge factor in his progression.
"Here is a power arm, power sinker guy that is not afraid of anybody," Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo said. "That is what he showed us when he was here. He went up and had some success in Lake Elsinore. Sinker/slider guy. Someone throwing 94 MPH and has that much movement on his ball has a chance to get a lot of people out. We were excited by him."
Lopez has a tendency to pull his head off line when throwing his slider, making its consistency shaky at best because it throws off his line to the plate. Improving his mechanics – again – will go a long way towards improving the slider, as it flattens out and lacks the movement needed when his body is out of whack.
His changeup has a chance to be a plus pitch, but Lopez does not use it very often. He prefers to work the hitter over with nothing but hard stuff and needs to trust the changeup more and throw it in any count. That alone would up his effectiveness and keep hitters from sitting on the sinking power fastball or four-seamer.
He doesn't walk many but does have trouble getting away from the big inning – some insiders believe it is a product of not pitching at the professional level and learning how to do it.
"Lopez has a power sinker and he throws strikes," Webber said. "The thing that will speed up his development is improvement in his slider and changeup. As his stint with us went along I saw some improvement in his slider and later in the year he started using his changeup – I thought it was very good."
In Nicaragua, pitchers are pulled from the game when men are on base and never really learn how to battle out of such situations. There is no development – the focus is purely on winning and if a man reaches base the pitcher isn't doing his job.
In six of the 14 games that he allowed runs, three or more runs crossed the dish. When it rains it generally pours for Lopez.
As he gains experience in similar situations, that will likely change. He inherited 20 runners over the course of the year and 10 came around to score.
"In Instructional League, he was the most asked about pitcher by other teams," Bryk said. "I told Grady (Fuson) and Kevin (Towers) that even though he is not major league ready right now, when he learns to repeat his delivery, he could move fast.
"He has good changeup and his slider is inconsistent. If he gets his slider down, he is a major league pitcher. A fierce competitor too. Juan Lara and Randy Smith should be commended too. He was on the voluntary-retired list and they did a good job getting him before anyone else."
"He worked on his changeup in Instructs and it was pretty good," added Whitehurst. "That and his slider. He needs to tweak his slider a little bit. At times he will throw a good one but he is just inconsistent with it because he doesn't use it.
"There was a lot of talk in the Instructional League on where he could end up – which could be at the higher levels. He is such a good kid and we hope for the best."
ETA: Lopez was added to the Padres 40-man roster this off-season. Lopez has some electric stuff, keeps the ball down in the zone and is an effective ground ball pitcher that throws strikes. If he can refine his secondary pitches over the next year, a September call-up is not out of the question. Otherwise, look for Lopez sometime in 2009. It would also not surprise to see Lopez in Double-A at the beginning of the year, despite just over 50 professional innings between Low- and High-A.
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