Couchee on Padres pitching prospects

San Diego Padres pitching coordinator Mike Couchee goes up and down the system to aid prospects. We caught up with him to discuss Cesar Carrillo, Simon Castro, Jeremy McBryde, Cory Luebke, Matt Buschmann, Josh Geer, Bryan Oland, Greg Burke, Mike Ekstrom, as well as Couchee's surprises and disappointments for the 2008 season.

Cesar Carrillo has been battling back from Tommy John surgery and they say command is the last thing that returns. What have you seen from him?

Mike Couchee: I saw him pitch over at PETCO and I was a little bit concerned about the command. I saw him pitch two or three times and the first time, the stuff was 88-ish and just kind of ok. When I saw him, I thought he was where he should be as far as the rehab process goes. Then I saw a few games and the game reports were he walked five guys, walked six guys, pitched five innings, four innings, so I was getting a little concerned about it.

But, I saw him pitch over at PETCO, to me he was, again, right on schedule, right where he should be as far as the stuff was much better. He touched some 94s and I think he only walked one guy in that game at PETCO in five innings and threw the ball very well. I think he's on track. I think the fall league was very good for him.

Simon Castro had a breakthrough year after being a little wild last season. It seems like he is working with 95 percent efficiency rather than trying to throw 100 MPH every time out.

Mike Couchee: He's maturing. He's buying into what we're trying to do here. He's got plenty of stuff even at a more controlled delivery. Maybe a 90-95 percent effort level, he's finding out the command with the stuff he brings at 90 percent, or 95 percent is plenty good enough. This kid for me has made nothing but great strides the last two years.

His command of the English language surprised me this year. It's almost a factor in how much someone can develop and how fast they're willing to learn the English language from Latin America.

Mike Couchee: For me, it absolutely goes hand in hand. You see those kids that pick it up like Simon has, it does, it translates onto the field. The other way around, it seems like it takes the kids longer to develop on the field that have a harder time picking up this language. From a coaching standpoint, it's so much easier to deal with these young kids that understand the language. Castro's just done a phenomenal job. He's improved in every aspect on the field and off the field, maturing, the English language, and obviously, the pitching part of it, for two years now.

Word was Jeremy McBryde didn't throw the changeup nearly enough. Was his late season success tied directly to throwing it more often?

Mike Couchee: I believe it's had a lot to do with it, absolutely. He could go through the lineup one time and blow guys away. I saw him punch out seven guys the first time through one time and, basically, it's all fastballs. I don't care if you're playing in Fort Wayne, or if you're playing in San Antonio, or the big leagues, once these guys see you one time, whether you're throwing 85 or 105, they just gear up or gear down to adjust to you.

I think the fact that his last quarter of the season, we harped on him and threatened him and everything else about using it. He was one of our instructional league guys last year and that's all he threw was fastball and changeup. He had some tremendous success with it. He surprised me when he got away from it early on.

That was kind of one of my talks with him that, ‘Hey, you of all guys ought to know how good it works for you. You went to it in instructional league and that's all you had.'

I think that, again, young kids pitching in front of a crowd for the first time really and getting caught up in the strikeouts. I think that's what happened. His first time through the lineup he'd get five, six, seven strikeouts then, like I said, they see you once and they gear it up and it didn't work for a while there. He kind of got back into it. I know I hit him with it, I know Tom Bradley hit him with it, and I know Bob Cluck hit him with it. He finally listened.

Cory Luebke was sent down from Lake Elsinore to Fort Wayne after a tough stretch. What mechanical changes has he gone through this year?

Mike Couchee: A little bit of mechanical stuff. He became a little more aggressive with his delivery, a little better finish; just getting back there. When he left Lake Elsinore, he was so mentally fried that it was as much to take the pressure off himself as it was anything else. Even in Elsinore, his stuff wasn't bad. He had some outings kind of like Drew (Miller) where he threw too many balls over the middle of the plate and got hit around a little bit.

He's very much a perfectionist and expects a lot out of himself. He was getting s mentally burned out that part of sending him back there was to let him relax a little bit. It seemed to work because he had some pretty good outings back there.

Matt Buschmann has had slow starts each of the last two years and then is excellent in the second half. Is his cross-body motion part of the slow start and finding the proper mechanics and release point?

Mike Couchee: Yeah, I think so. Last year in Elsinore at the beginning it was a max effort; it was a lot of moving parts and a lot of odd moving parts. I think half way through the year last year he and Steve Webber, they just simplified everything. I think that's when he really took off. I think over the winter time, again, this kid, he's a workaholic, sometimes to an extent to where it's not beneficial. He over does things; he over thinks things and all of a sudden, instead of keeping it very, very simple like he did the last half of last year, he starts trying to tinker with this and tinker with that and the next thing you know, you've got a bunch of adjustments you've got to make again. Then, when he gets back to not thinking so much and keeping everything simple, that's when you see him pitch as efficiently as anybody out there.

How important is it for a guy like Josh Geer to get the hitters feet moving and pitch inside so he can open up the outer half of the plate?

Mike Couchee: It's huge, it's huge. Obviously, we talk about the fastball down and away, having command of that, being able to throw that pitch eight out of 10 times or nine out of 10 times when you have to because that's the toughest pitch to do anything with. But, if that's all you do, then they're going to start cheating you and they're going to start leaning and all of a sudden now, you're losing its effect. To be able to move some guys' feet and keep them honest and throw inside when you need to throw inside, that's a huge part of what Josh has to do and most of our guys have to do, not all of them.

Has there been anyone this year that has maybe surprised you more than anybody else?

Mike Couchee: I think Wynn Pelzer is my biggest pleasant surprise. When we decided to send him to Fort Wayne to start the year, I thought that was a little bit quick based on the lack of innings he had in college, coming off the knee injury. I just thought it was going to be a little fast for him. I think working out of that eight-man was real beneficial for him just to get his feet wet. Like I said, this kid just has this ability to take things in and make adjustments very quickly. He's a sponge. He listens and really learns and takes things out that you ask him to take out. He's probably the biggest pleasant surprise that I've seen.

Was there anyone who was a slight disappointment for you? Didn't meet your expectations?

Mike Couchee: No, because I think all of the guys in Triple-A are very inexperienced at that level. I thought they did a nice job of adjusting and kind of learning as they went. The double A staff was solid all year long. Obviously, the Elsinore staff did a nice job. Drew Miller came along nicely. Actually, they were all pretty good; I really didn't have any real disappointments. Pretty much everybody was, for the most part, where I thought they would be and hoped they would be.

The last guy I want to talk about is Bryan Oland. This guy wasn't on the roster to start the year and ended the year with a less than 1.0 ERA. Phenomenal.

Mike Couchee: I talked about Pelzer, but from the bullpen side of it, Greg Burke in San Antonio kind of came out of nowhere to be their closer there, throwing the ball 94 mph, he was outstanding. Yeah, Oland was, nobody knew who this guy was. He was another guy that started the year out in extended spring. Once he got out under the lights, he was absolutely phenomenal. He's got a changeup that's a big league pitch.

You mentioned Burke, he was hitting 94 and that slider.

Mike Couchee: He's turned himself into a big league prospect. He was, for me, a real good organizational guy. He's a great kid, he takes the ball anytime. A year ago in Lake Elsinore, starting, relieving, this kid was out of gas. Still, he would take the ball, wouldn't say a word and go out there and give it all he had. He was fantastic as our closer. Like I said, the slider's always been good and now all of a sudden he's pitching at 92 and touching 94. That was really neat to see, that was kind of a surprise.

I like (Mike) Ekstrom too. When he was starting for us early on in San Antonio, it almost looked like he was tired from the get go. Literally, I'd sit in the dugout and it was hard to tell what was what. We took him out of the rotation and put him in the ‘pen and all of a sudden the slider was back; he was throwing 92 – 93 again. Those are two more guys that, out of the ‘pen, ended up being very pleasant surprise.

I had always wondered what happened to Mike Ekstrom. I thought he was a good pitcher; he was a ground ball guy, used to get a lot of them. All of a sudden his velocity dipped, his pitches weren't as crisp, it was a year and a half really.

Mike Couchee: Yeah, like you said, he almost looked like he was tired right out of the chute. I'd sit in the dugout and say, ‘Is that a fastball? Is that a slider? Is that a changeup?' I couldn't tell, they all looked the same. Once he went into the bullpen, he became a different animal. He did a heck of a job for them.

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