Name: Wilton Lopez
DOB: July 19, 1983
Not even known as Wilton Lopez, the Nicaraguan spent two seasons on the sidelines before being signed.
Known as Aristides Sevilla, he had been on the New York Yankees restricted list and was pitching in winter ball in Nicaragua. His agent called the Padres and asked that they check him out. After two scouts recommended him and his agent was able to get his release from the Yankees voluntary-retired list, Randy Smith and Juan Lara swooped in and inked the righty to a minor league deal.
Not knowing much about Wilton Aristides Sevilla Lopez, they got an eyeful when he blew away hitters with a mid-90s fastball. It also had scouts abuzz – how could they have missed this type of arm.
Lopez had pitched in 12.1 innings in 2004 across four levels within the Yankees system. He came back in 2007 to throw 50.2 innings between Low-A Fort Wayne and High-A Lake Elsinore, posting a combined 4.44 ERA while striking out 36 and walking just three.
Lopez began the 2008 season in Double-A, going 0-2 with a 4.93 ERA across 27 appearances. He allowed runs in nine of those outings and saw left-handers hit .375 off him. Lopez was solid with runners on base, holding the opposition to a .205 average with runners in scoring position and stranding all eight runners he inherited. He also notched six double play grounders in 38.1 innings.
The Padres felt he could use more seasoning and sent him back to High-A. He moved into the closer role immediately and saved 12 games in 13 chances, going 2-1 with a 2.64 ERA across 30 games. He stranded another four inherited runners and struck out 26 while notching four double play grounders in 30.2 innings.
"When he got here, he was outstanding," Lake Elsinore manager Carlos Lezcano said. "Then, towards the end he flattened out a little bit."
"I think he still needs to learn how to pitch," former Lake Elsinore pitching coach Wally Whitehurst said. "He goes out there and throws and it's easy to throw when you're throwing 95 like Wilton does, or 96. But, there are times where he still gets hit just because of his off-speed pitches."
Left-handers still hit him hard with a .316 average but progress was made in the development of his secondary pitches. He also had tossed one inning for Triple-A Portland, allowing a run.
After the season, Lopez went to the Arizona Fall League (AFL). In 16 innings he posted a 5.06 ERA, yielding runs in seven of his 14 outings.
Lopez throws his fastball consistently in the 93-94 mph range and has touched 96 mph. His ball is very heavy and has late sinking action.
"Sometimes his delivery would get real fast and he would open up and drop his arm and his sinker would flatten out, it wouldn't sink as much," San Antonio pitching coach Steve Webber said. "But once he stayed over the rubber, slowed himself down and got on top of the ball, he was able to keep the ball down and maintain sink. But a lot of his trouble when he gets hit is he overthrows spins, spins off the ball and he leaves it up and his slider becomes flat."
His ability to stay low in the zone has kept his walk totals down and the groundballs tallies high. He averages a nearly 3-to-1 groundball-to-fly ball ratio as a result.
He works exclusively off the fastball and the darting downward action makes it tough for hitters to generate much lift. He allowed one homer all season across three leagues. It was, therefore, uncharacteristic to see three balls leave the yard off him in limited AFL action.
His slider should be a pitch that has devastating effects to right-handers but has not taken the steps forward necessary to make it dominant. Lopez has a tendency to pull his head off the line to the plate when the slider is delivered, giving hitters a sense that it is coming and yanking the ball off the plate. When his mechanics are maintained, the slider becomes a very tough pitch for the opposition to hit. It has a chance to be a plus pitch.
"He needs to stay on top of his slider," Lezcano said. "He's another guy that needs to be inside more and use his off-speed pitches more. Once the league found out everything was hard, they got to him a little bit at the end. He throws also 92 – 94, 95; he has a very good arm. It's just a matter of off-speed pitches and location; he needs to work on that, if he wants to get hitters out at a higher level."
Lopez' changeup was a consistent pitch, but he needs to rely on it more. He has a tendency to think hard, hard, hard all the time and abandons the off-speed. It has good movement and is more effective because of the success his fastball generates.
"He's not consistent enough with his off-speed pitches," Whitehurst said. "That's a big thing to work on is making him throw his off-speed pitches and getting them in the strike zone and taking enough off of them where it makes his fastball even better and then make sure he maintains a good sink on his fastball.
"I think he throws it too hard and it gets flat if that makes any sense at all. A lot of times you throw it too hard and it takes the sink out of it. Get back down to basics and hopefully work on those things."
There are times when he can be predictable, as well. Changeups are thrown in counts when one would expect one rather than varied through an at-bat.
Repeatable mechanics is the goal for Lopez, as his stuff can be dazzling at times. Being able to consistently go through his motion with each checkpoint addressed is vital to the command and movement of his pitches.
He has an intensity and desire to succeed. It serves him well as a late-inning guy, as he attacks the strike zone to get ahead and is not afraid to work inside. At times, though, he can get amped up too much and it affects his ability to spot his fastball on the lower half.
"We knew very little about him when we got him, we knew he had a good arm, nice sink and a breaking ball," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "We went ahead and put him in Double-A, which was a little bit of a shock to him, and it took him awhile to get comfortable.
"We wanted to put him in position where he could be groomed and when we sent him down to Lake Elsinore. We wanted him to pitch in the later part of the game with some intensity, and for the first month he was nearly unhittable. Overall, it was a very positive year for Wilton."
Conclusion: Sleight of frame, Lopez could add muscle to his frame without ill affects. It would also decrease any talk of potential injury from the arm speed he is generating.
A three-quarters delivery that drops down even further at times gives him solid movement going away from right-handers, but consistently working in the changeup to give something going the other way to fend off lefties is a necessity, especially at the higher levels.
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