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Matt Nevarez was selected in the tenth round of the 2005 MLB Draft.
In 2009, four full seasons later, Nevarez is playing his first full season of professional baseball.
Of the top ten picks the Rangers signed in the '05 draft, three have played in the Major Leagues. Three are out of baseball altogether. Four are still in the minors, hoping to get their shot.
Nevarez is one of those four.
Coming out of the Los Angeles area's San Fernando High School, the right-hander was widely regarded as an incredibly talented arm, but still very raw.
Despite that reputation, Nevarez busted out of the gates with the AZL Rangers in '05, posting a 1.61 earned-run average in 28 innings. He gave up 18 hits, walked 13, and struck out 24.
Then the injury troubles came. Nevarez hurt his arm in the 2006 season. While trying to come back, he logged just one inning for the AZL Rangers in '06, giving up one run. Then he didn't appear in another game for the rest of the year.
And the entire 2007 season.
"I hurt it in '06 and we tried to rehab it and tried to come back," said Nevarez. "I think I tried to come back twice, and in '07 Spring Training I finally just blew it out completely. I had to get surgery."
Though Nevarez was out for more than two full seasons, he only had one surgery.
Players dread being in Arizona during the regular season, particularly if they're hurt. Rehabbers generally wake up between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. every single day. That got old in a hurry for Nevarez.
"It was about three years," replied Nevarez when asked how long he was in Surprise. "Since '05 to the middle of last season, before we broke for Spokane."
Nevarez finally escaped from the monotonous days and oppressive heat of Surprise last summer, when he joined the Spokane Indians for the start of their season in June.
Working between the bullpen and starting rotation, Nevarez went 4-2 with a 4.36 ERA over 43.1 innings. Although he was tough to hit [.238 BAA] and he struck out 50 batters, he was walking one batter per inning .
When Nevarez arrived in Spokane, the Rangers still had hopes that he could develop into a starting pitcher. But a minor arm injury late in the 2008 season changed that, and he now considers himself a reliever.
"I started off half the season in the bullpen and then became a starter," Nevarez said of last summer. "I had a little more elbow problems, so they decided to just put me in the bullpen."
This year, at 22-years-old and five years into his professional career, Nevarez is finally getting a shot at full-season ball, playing amongst much less tenured players with the Single-A Hickory Crawdads.
Although Nevarez certainly has tenure, he still doesn't have much on-field professional experience.
"I feel like I'm just getting my feet wet," he said, "but the coaches say I'm a veteran, so I've got to try and take on that leadership role a little bit."
Nevarez has been the leader of Hickory's bullpen all season, pacing the team with eight saves and 23 games finished. In 27 relief appearances, the 6-foot-5 hurler has logged 28.1 innings and posted a 2.54 ERA. He has surrendered only 18 hits [.176 BAA] while walking 11 and striking out 42.
That's 13.3 punchouts per nine innings versus just 3.5 walks. No other pitcher in the system comes close to approaching that strikeout rate.
Known as a power arm out of high school, Nevarez is definitely putting up the numbers of a power reliever. But he feels like a much different pitcher than he was prior to the Tommy John surgery.
"I feel like I'm way different," Nevarez explained. "My mechanics are way better. I feel like I have better command with my fastball and pitches. I'm staying behind—less arm problems. I feel like everything is getting better. I'm more mature with reading hitters and stuff."
Despite the past arm troubles and the surgery, Nevarez still does have power stuff. His fastball sits anywhere between 90-95 mph. During our recent trip to Hickory, Nevarez worked at 91-93 mph in one appearance and 93-94 in the other.
Nevarez says that is about normal for him.
"I throw a fastball about 90-95," he said. "I'll hit 96 every once in awhile."
He also mixes in a couple of offspeed pitches.
"My slider—I just picked up my slider this spring and it is coming along real good. Today was the first time I'd thrown my changeup in a game since last year. I'm just trying to work on it and get it better."
In the two outings, Nevarez yielded one run on one hit in two innings, walking one and striking out two. He threw five changeups—all for strikes. They resulted in a groundout, an infield popout, two swinging strikes and one called strike.
The righty says that he's been working on his changeup in side sessions.
"I throw it pretty much every bullpen, just to work on it," he said of the offspeed pitch. "I haven't had enough feel for it, especially coming in when the game is on the line. I don't want to go out there and not trust my pitches, so I go with what I trust."
Gaining trust with his slider hasn't been easy. Nevarez always threw a curveball up until this season. Even though the pitch got swings-and-misses, he wasn't able to get it over the plate often enough.
"I couldn't throw my curveball for a strike," he said. "The curveball is more of a feel pitch. Sliders—you can just throw it hard and hopefully it goes somewhere."
In those two recent outings against the Lake County Captains, he threw only two sliders, coming in at 79 and 81 mph. Both pitches were out of the strike zone. Nevarez has been focusing on making the pitch more of a tight, true slider instead of a lazy curve.
"I like the way [the slider] is coming along," the Californian said. "I feel it is still getting better and getting harder. Everything is coming along good. I've just got to work on staying tight with it and making it more hard than loopy."
Approximately two-thirds of the way through the season, Nevarez's 2009 campaign has to be considered a success. The prospect is not only feeling good on the mound, but he is also improving upon perhaps his biggest weakness.
"My walks are way down from last year," he said. "Last year I had as many walks as innings. I'm better with my fastball command."
Nevarez credits Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman for getting him in the right mindset, helping to improve his control.
"He just told me to throw strikes and see what the hitters can do with your ball. I took that approach in the spring, and I had a real good spring.
"I'm trying to take that approach here. Sometimes I get carried away, but I've got to try and stay with that approach."
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Nevarez finally getting his chance
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