Leading the Mud Hens in starts in 2004 was minor league veteran Pat Ahearne. Ahearne has had minimal chances at the big league level throughout his career, and that trend is likely to continue considering he posted only moderately successful numbers as a 30+ year old pitcher in AAA. Joining Ahearne as rotation stalwarts were Andy Van Hekken, Shane Loux, and a combination of James Baldwin, Adrian Burnside, and John Ennis.
After a historic Major League debut against the New York Yankees, Andy Van Hekken has seen his star fall dramatically. With a decrease in velocity from his already below average state, Van Hekken has seen a subsequent decrease in success. The 2004 season exhibited a minor improvement for Andy, posting a 4.96 ERA in 152 innings. His career as a starter is probably limited to the minor leagues, as his most likely destination in the Majors would be in long relief.
Shane Loux has been a very frustrating prospect for the Tiger organization. He has displayed all the tools of a successful major league starter, including plus velocity, and nice off-speed pitches. Loux' numbers were skewed this year by him trying to pitch through elbow pain that ultimately resulted in season-ending surgery. Despite the fact that he will likely miss the entire 2005 season, Loux is young enough that he could still establish a successful career post recovery.
The combination of Baldwin, Burnside, and Ennis was intermittently successful, with only Ennis having a legitimate shot at extending his career at the major league level. Baldwin has had success at the highest level in the past, but numerous arm injuries have derailed his career, reducing him to organizational filler. Acquired in the Randall Simon trade, Burnside has been successful in spurts, but largely ineffective on the whole. He will return to Toledo in 2005, likely splitting his time between the rotation and bullpen.
After struggling as a starter, John Ennis was moved to the bullpen where he was far more successful. Picking up 10 saves in 25 relief appearances, Ennis earned a September call-up, and a chance to make his case for a bullpen spot with Detroit in 2005. That plan was foiled by a run of very shaky relief appearances, in which Ennis did nothing to help his stock in the minds of the Detroit brass. Ennis will appear in spring training as a non-roster invitee, with a slim shot of heading north to Detroit.
The Erie Seawolves had an extensive parade of pitchers strutting their stuff on the mound at Jerry Uht Park this season. Some of the turnover was the result of injuries, and some was the result of the promotion of successful pitchers. The changes started just weeks into the season as Rob Henkel went down with yet another injury. In a career marred by one injury after another, Henkel's shoulder surgery may be the beginning of the end for this once promising stars. Despite a plus fastball in the 90-93 mph range, and the organization's best curveball, Henkel simply has not remained healthy long enough to get his shot.
Also going down with an injury this season, albeit late in the year, was right-hander Preston Larrison. After a dominating 2002 season at Lakeland, and a miserable campaign with Erie in 2003, Larrison had rebounded to a level that had once again elevated his prospect status. Larrison's season ended early when he underwent Tommy John surgery, and he is now likely to miss the 2005 season.
The Erie rotation also saw starts from three former first round choices in Kenny Baugh, Matt Roney, and 2003 first pick Kyle Sleeth. Both Baugh and Roney will contend for spots on the Detroit roster in 2005 after good seasons in AA, but are likely to start the season with Toledo.
After reasonable success in Lakeland, Sleeth was promoted to Erie as an attempt to challenge him. Almost immediately upon his arrival, pitching coach Mike Caldwell began to make changes to his mechanics in an effort to ward off future injuries. Sleeth was slow to adjust to this new style as his control struggled, and his effectiveness was nil. While many fans and media members began screaming "bust", that is hardly the case. Sleeth has enormous potential, and based on his instructional league performance, all indications are that Kyle will begin breaking out with a return trip to Erie in 2005.
The most dominating member of the Seawolves rotation this summer was Wil Ledezma. The former Rule 5 selection from the Boston organization, Ledezma was completely dominating prior to his promotion to Detroit. Posting a 10-3 record with a 2.42 ERA in 16 starts, Ledezma continued to be solid after his promotion to the Major Leagues. Heading into spring training 2005, Wilfredo will most likely have every chance to make the Detroit rotation, where he is expected to be a contributing member for years to come.
Due to the rash of injuries down the stretch, Erie was forced to deal with a make-shift rotation that put many relievers in starting spots they had never experienced as a professional. One successful transition came from Rick Kirsten. As a starter, Kirsten turned in one solid outing after another, and convinced the organization that he deserved a shot to start full time; a job he will likely hold down with Toledo in 2005.
While the fans of the Lakeland Tigers were forced to endure a rather putrid offensive performance for the majority of the season, they were treated to a showing by some of the organization's top pitching prospects. A half season of Kyle Sleeth, combined with about 20 starts each from Joel Zumaya and Humberto Sanchez made for some exciting moments on the mound of Joker Marchant Stadium.
Zumaya and Sanchez' numbers may not look impressive on the surface, but both displayed flashed of brilliance in their first taste of the Florida State League. Two hard-throwing righties, both players struck out nearly a batter per inning, but struggled with their control. With the rash of late season injuries in Erie; both Sanchez and Zumaya got an early taste of what would be in store in 2005. Neither was dominating in their brief stints, but both showed they will be more than capable of competing at AA next season. A freak accident late in the year, resulted in knee surgery for Sanchez, but he is expected to make a full recovery and be ready to pitch in spring training.
Lakeland was also a popular place for recovering pitchers to begin their long, winding comeback trails. Jeremy Johnson and Matt Parris both began to work their way back to top prospect status, with moderate success. Both players struggled significantly with their control, walking far too many batters, and neither had the strikeout numbers that were present prior to their injuries. The 2005 season should be the last step in their recovery, and fans can expect to see their statistics return to similar levels to those of seasons past.
Also getting a chance to start in 2004 were two small school stars, Corey Hamman and Mike Howell. While Howell was absolutely abysmal (125 hits in 86 innings, 8.16 ERA), Montclair State graduate Hamman excelled after being moved to the rotation. Hamman was also the beneficiary of a late season promotion to Erie, and he will have a chance to prove his metal as a swingman in 2005.
Wednesday will continue with Part 2, a look at the lower levels of the minor league starting pitchers.