Kyle Sleeth promises to be a fan-favorite in Detroit someday, but there are a few things the Colorado native needs to learn about the Michigan sports scene. The top-rated prospect in the organization already has his baseball priorities straight -- he's a Tiger through and through. Hockey and football are a different matter.
"I'm a big Avalanche fan," admitted Sleeth. "It's hard not to follow them being from Colorado, and their rivalry with the Red Wings is definitely one of the best in all of sports."
Asked what he felt the other top rivalries were, Broncos versus Raiders was his choice when it came to football. What, no Michigan versus Ohio State?
"I guess I'll have to learn to include that one," Sleeth said with a grin.
Pitching in Erie, the big right-hander is currently experiencing a different sort of learning curve. The Tigers' top pick, and the third overall in the 2003 draft, is facing adversity for the first time in his baseball career.
"He's had a bit of an eye-opener," said Sea Wolves manager Rick Sweet. "He's never been hit hard before, so this is a good learning experience for him."
Since being promoted from Lakeland, Sleeth has struggled at the Double A level to the tune of 3-4, 7.08 in 61 innings. He has not, however, let adversity get the best of him.
"You learn a lot about yourself from failure," said Sleeth, "and you can take those lessons and put them to good use. I'm frustrated, but I know this is part of learning how to pitch at a higher level. In A ball you can get behind in the count and fastballs away will usually get it done. Here you need to throw more off-speed pitches in fastball counts, and that type of adjustment is part of becoming a better pitcher. I have a lot of confidence in my ability, and with hard work I feel I can do what's necessary to succeed."
The expectations that come with being an organization's number-one pick are high, and Erie pitching coach Mike Caldwell thinks Sleeth has what it takes to meet them. "He's facing better competition here," said Caldwell, "but he's learning what it takes to succeed at this level. He has four quality pitches, and maturation and consistency are all he needs to pitch in the major leagues. He needs more experience under his belt, but it's clear that the talent is there."
Sweet echoes Caldwell when it comes to Sleeth's potential.
"He's starting to adjust and meet the challenges," Sweet said, "and while the consistency isn't there yet, the ability is. He needs seasoning, but he has the talent to pitch at the big-league level. Once he starts to command his stuff better, the results will come."
The results were certainly there at Wake Forest, where Sleeth went 31-6 in three seasons and tied an NCAA record by winning 26 consecutive decisions. Those numbers portended a fast rise through the Tigers system, but his recent road-bumps have tempered those expectations.
"My play will dictate how quickly I reach the majors," said Sleeth. "I shouldn't be there before I'm ready, because that could be more damaging than helpful. But guys like Mike Caldwell and John Matlack are great teachers, and they have me pointed in the right direction. They're helping me with my mechanics and command, and hopefully I'll start pitching well enough to earn that opportunity."
Sleeth's lack of consistent command can be attributed, in part, to his not signing until August of last year. The Tigers then opted to wait until 2004 for him to make his pro debut, which made for nearly a full year away from game action. While it allowed him more time to play the guitar, a hobby since his freshman year at Wake Forest, it did little to keep him sharp on the mound.
"I think that was definitely a factor," said Sleeth. "It's taken a while to get my feel back, and while some days everything is there, others it's not. It's important to have consistency with all of your pitches, and so far this year I haven't put it all together."
When he does put it all together, a steady gig at Comerica Park is sure to follow. With a 94 mph fastball and the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the system, Sleeth is certainly a star in the making. A little fine-tuning has to happen first, but once it does, Kyle Sleeth posters will start appearing on the walls of youngsters throughout the state of Michigan. Something he might want to consider is that many of those same walls already have Red Wings and Go Blue posters adorning them. Got that, Kyle?
David Laurila is a sportswriter residing in Boston. He can be reached at DLaurila@aol.com.