Name: Ernesto Frieri
DOB: July 19, 1985
Signed as an international free agent in 2003, Frieri debuted in the Venezuelan Summer League before graduating to the Dominican Summer League the following season. With the DSL Padres, the right-hander went 4-0 with a 1.43 ERA – allowing 30 hits in 50.1 innnings while striking out 59.
He came to the states in 2005 and had an explosive debut, featuring a low-90s fastball and biting slider. In the Arizona Rookie League, Frieri went 7-1 with a 1.17 ERA across 17 games, including five starts. He struck out 59 in 46.1 innings while surrendering just 21 hits.
The 2006 season saw him in Eugene for most of the year. He posted a 3.82 ERA but didn't have the same velocity or bite on his stuff as the previous year.
Eager to make an impression, Frieri waited until after the All-Star break in 2007 to make a true impact. Given an ultimatum to listen to the coaches and take their advice, Frieri responded – seeing his velocity spike and his pitches become crisper. He wound up posting a 2.64 ERA across 64.2 innings with Fort Wayne before notching a 1.25 ERA in 13 games and 21.2 innings with Lake Elsinore.
His success, and ultimately the stuff he showed in his repertoire, led to Frieri being placed on the Padres 40-man roster.
The Colombian native returned to High-A in 2008 and worked out of the bullpen to begin the season. He tallied a 2.45 ERA over 15 appearances before being moved into a starter's role. Frieri was placed into the Lake Elsinore rotation so he could continue to work on his secondary pitches in a more concise manner. Sometimes in the bullpen, it is tough to work on a specific pitch – especially when your name might be called in tough situations. As a starter, however, Frieri was able to work on his offerings during consistent bullpen sessions and take that into the game.
"In 2007, we saw some signs of some really good stuff," roving pitching coordinator Mike Couchee said. "He came to spring training that next year and we didn't see the same breaking ball or changeup and felt like putting him in the rotation would give him a chance to get that stuff back. Coming out of the pen in a one run or two run game, there is not a lot of time to go out and experiment.
"We put him back in the rotation to find the breaking ball we saw before. Because of that, the breaking ball is back. The changeup is progressing and much better than it was before."
He went 7-5 with a 4.34 ERA across 18 California League starts. His walk totals went down but his extra base hits went up. Frieri also had a spot start in Portland and two starts late in the year with San Antonio.
His 70.7 left on base percentage was fifth best in the California League among qualifying pitchers and his .316 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) ranked eighth.
Moved to Double-A San Antonio, Frieri went 10-9 with a 3.59 ERA across 27 games, including 26 starts. He allowed 125 hits in 140.1 innings while walking 62 and striking out 118. The right-hander allowed two runs or less in 17 of his outings, including seven straight early in the year. He held the opposition to a .214 average with runners in scoring position and limited the leadoff hitter of an inning to a .290 on-base percentage. He also threw 64.2 percent of his pitches for strikes.
"He was our horse," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Terry Kennedy said. "I think he was in the top three in innings pitch. He got 19 decisions, which meant that he was always in the game for a long time. He got us into the sixth, seventh and eighth sometimes."
Frieri placed eighth in the Texas League in ERA and third in strikeouts. He did, however, place fourth in walks allowed. His .237 average against was the third best mark in the circuit. Frieri's 74.2 left on-base percentage placed him third in the league but his 3.98 walks per nine innings was fourth worst.
"He has a crazy finish to his delivery, some recoil," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady fuson said. "He has a good arm, is around 90 to 95, his breaking ball has improved, and he has a knack for making the quality pitch. He still needs to get down in the zone better, but you have to remember this was his first full year as a starter."
The 24-year-old pitches in two games for San Diego when rosters expanded. He faced the minimum while striking out two in his first outing and walked one across an inning in his second appearance.
Frieri works in the low-90s with his fastball and tops out at 95 mph. He is consistent with the pitch and can move it around to all four quadrants. If he can locate it well, Frieri becomes very tough to hit because of some deception in his delivery that makes him look rather violent.
"His fastball very deceptive too; that's his out pitch and he doesn't give up many hits on a fastball," former San Antonio and current Portland pitching coach Steve Webber said. "I think his future will depend on the continued development of the curveball and changeup and his ability to throw those in the strike zone."
Originally throwing a slider that was a plus pitch when he first came stateside, Frieri has moved to the curveball after entirely losing the feel for the slider. He went through several iterations of the pitch before settling on a grip and delivery that works well with his frame. It has become a much better offering with more consistent break.
The changeup remains a work in progress and will never be more than average at best. He is able to drop a few quality ones in that are better than just show-me pitches but does not exude the confidence in the pitch that he has in others. Being able to throw the pitch for strikes will be important, giving hitters something else to think about.
"I think the biggest thing is some improvement in his delivery and also the development of curveball and changeup," Webber said. "His curveball got shorter and tighter and a later break and he was able to use his changeup more."
"He needs to work on his secondary pitches," Kennedy said. "His curveball was better this year. The changeup still needs work, but he did a great job for us."
More ephasis is needed on holding runners close. He and his catchers were able to snag just three of the 19 runners attempting to steal this season. He does not vary his looks enough and is relatively slow to home plate.
Frieri is a confident pitcher that believes in his abilities. He is not afraid of contact and works off his fastball. His reliance on his fastball can be too much, at times, and mixing his pitches well will be crucial to his success. Of course, if he can't find the strike zone with his secondary pitches, it all becomes moot.
"He's been very successful, its not always been the prettiest thing in the world, but he has put up good numbers," Couchee said. "He has worked very hard to get where he was at and is going to get a chance at the next level."
Conclusion: Frieri got a taste of the show in 2009 and will be a step away in the coming season. He has been the most consistent starter two straight years because he has fastball command – a trait that others lack. If he can improve his secondary pitches, Frieri has the makings of a middle of the rotation starter. If not, he has the charisma to succeed in relief.
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