The Rangers actually drafted Dennis, who was coming off Tommy John surgery at the time, in the 40th round of the 2006 MLB Draft. Because he was a fifth-year senior in 2007, the Rangers would not lose his rights until just before the 2007 Draft. When Dennis' Auburn Tigers fell short of the NCAA postseason, the Rangers were able to sign Dennis as a fifth-year senior draft-and-follow, which has since been outlawed by baseball's new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Dennis came into Auburn as a hard-throwing reliever. He caught the eye of scouts during his sophomore season of 2004 when he posted a 2.61 ERA in 22 appearances. He threw 38 innings that season, surrendering 36 hits, walking six, and striking out 43.
But Dennis would undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow just prior to the 2005 season, or his true junior campaign.
The right-hander became a starting pitcher in 2006 and posted a 6.36 ERA in 15 appearances [14 starts]. He returned to the bullpen for his senior season in 2007 and went 3-3 with a 3.66 ERA. Dennis surrendered 34 hits in 39.1 innings that season while punching out 42.
The Rangers chose to sign Dennis just prior to the 2007 MLB Draft and assigned him to short-season Spokane. The Northwest League proved to be little challenge for the reliever, as he gave up just one run on two hits in 9.2 innings out of the bullpen. He was promoted to Single-A Clinton for the remainder of the year, where he had seven saves and a 4.94 ERA in 22 appearances.
Dennis began the 2008 campaign with High-A Bakersfield. He yielded nine earned runs in just 4.2 innings with the Blaze, giving up 10 hits and walking seven. Dennis then went back to Clinton, where he's had little issue retiring hitters. The 24-year-old has an impressive 1.57 earned run average in 23 relief appearances. Opposing hitters are batting just .223 off him and he has struck out 30 batters while walking 10 in 34.1 innings.
Lone Star Dugout caught up with Dennis during a recent trip to Clinton.
Jason Cole: You had Tommy John surgery in college, right?
Chris Dennis: Right. What would have been my true junior year. What would have been my draft year, I had it right before the season started.
Cole: Your velocity was down the year that you returned, is that correct?
Dennis: It was my junior year, the year after I had the surgery. I came back the next year – in less than a year, I made my first start – and I was like down from 92-95 to about 84 or 83 for my first couple of starts.
Cole: Working at 83-84, were you able to pitch at that velocity?
Dennis: Pitching at that level wasn't bad. It was just that we were down a little bit and I was having to start. I would be good for three or four innings and in the fifth inning every time, I'd just kind of run out of gas. Most guys coming off Tommy John do. It's hard to stay warm throughout the game, it's hard to stay loose. I was good for about four or five innings, but I'd always want to go out there for that extra inning and I'd get shelled that last inning.
Cole: You were drafted by the Rangers in the 40th round of the 2006 Draft, but because you were a fifth-year senior and your team didn't make the postseason, you were eligible to sign as a draft-and-follow. Did you have other teams approach you about drafting you in 2007 before you did sign with the Rangers?
Dennis: There were a bunch of other teams approaching me. At the time, I felt like the Rangers were a good system to be in and they still are. I'm just saying that at the time, we weren't as stacked as we are now. But obviously I love the Rangers, I love the way they're treating us, and I love the way they're treating me. I couldn't have asked for it to work out better. I had kind of known that I wanted to sign with them all along. Just to close that option off just in case they didn't want me.
Cole: Had you talked to the Rangers much before they drafted you in 2006?
Dennis: I didn't even talk to them once before they drafted me. The guy that signed me was Jeff Wood. He's a great scout down in the Alabama area. He signed myself, Borbon, Tommy Hunter, and a bunch of guys. He wasn't even the scout that had done the paperwork on me. But he drafted me and he called me. I had some buddies that said stuff like that. That when you get drafted, it's by a team that you don't think is going to do it I guess.
|Dennis is looking for a second chance in Bakersfield. b>|
Dennis: I'm still not top velocity of where I was. I'm working in the 89-91 range. Last year when I was closing, I was a little bit higher than that. I've kind of backed down to try and get more movement. I just try to keep my fastball down and I mainly attack with it. I'll throw a slider probably in the 80-81 range and a changeup every now and then. But mainly I'm just at you with fastballs and then sliders if I get ahead.
Cole: Do you throw the changeup as much when you work out of the bullpen?
Dennis: You know, I don't. The big thing as a pitcher, when I kind of throw in the later roles here, you don't want to get beat with your third pitch. I make sure that I'm throwing fastball, slider and if I have an opportunity to throw my changeup, I will. But you don't want to get beat with that third pitch. You want to make sure that if you get beat, it's with your best pitch. I'm mostly right at guys trying to get ahead early and trying to put them away early. The changeup, I'll throw it if I need to, but for the most part I'm just a fastball, slider guy.
Cole: Do you throw a four-seam fastball or a two-seamer?
Dennis: I throw both. Mainly four-seams but I'll go two-seams some to lefties just to take some off and get a little bit away from them. But for the most part, I'm four seams.
Cole: You were on the DL earlier in the season. What was that for?
Dennis: I was working on stuff at instructs and they basically put me on the DL to get me back mechanically right. I was working with Dave Chavarria in Bakersfield. I got back and threw one outing there and then came down here. Ever since then, it's been fine. He did really good work with me and DC here is just phenomenal. Both of those guys really helped me out. But that's what it was – I was just trying to get back mechanically sound because I had kind of gotten away from some things.
Cole: What were the things you were working on at instructs?
Dennis: Last year, my front side was a little low, so they were trying to get my front side higher. They were always pushing me higher, higher, just to get me up. Then over the offseason, I actually got too high. Then when I got to Bakersfield, after I had a rough outing or two, they just tried to get me in the center. Just up and firm instead of down. That's the main thing. Last year I was too low to where I couldn't throw a breaking ball over it and this year I was too high to where I couldn't throw strikes. I was just trying to find a happy medium.
Cole: Judging by the way you've pitched here in Clinton, I assume you've corrected it pretty well?
Dennis: It feels good. I feel comfortable. I've just kind of gotten in a groove a little bit I guess and I'm just trying to ride that out.
Cole: Have the Rangers told you anything about whether or not they would get you back to Bakersfield this season?
Dennis: No, not really. Servais was back in town and he told guys to ask if they wanted to know anything. I'm just kind of staying away. I'm just going to try and worry about the things I'm going to worry about and let it take care of itself. It's one of those things that is out of my hands. I'm going to just keep making good pitches and hopefully something will work out. If it doesn't, that's fine too. I have got to do my job either way.
Cole: Have you set any goals for yourself for the remainder of the season?
Dennis: The one goal I've set – and I have said this from day one, but I kind of got away from it in Bakersfield. It's going to sound weird, but it's just committing to every pitch. Even if the situation calls for a slider – everybody in the park thinks it's a slider – and I want a fastball in, I'm going to throw the fastball in because I'm committed to it. That has been the number one thing. I'd rather throw a pitch that I'm committed to than second guess myself later on. What I've worked on philosophy-wise is just committing to pitches and really being whole-hearted when I'm doing stuff.