Position: Left-handed Pitcher
After a standout season at Lake Michigan College, Below came to the Tigers as a 19th round draft choice in 2006. Duane's '06 campaign at LMC was positively dynamite, as he sported a 7-1 record in 16 starts, with a 1.75 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. In addition, he managed to strike out over 13 batters per nine innings, while maintaining over a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio. For his efforts, Below was named an All-MCCAA 1st Team pitcher, as well as a Region XII All-NJCAA pitcher.
During his professional debut, he made steady progress with the GCL Tigers. After a rocky first few outings in June, he settled in for a nice 12-game run, including four starts that led to his being named the TigsTown GCL Pitcher of the Month for August. After wrapping up his rookie league stint with a sparkling 1.60/1.10 line, Duane was moved up to Oneonta to close out the season. Through two starts for the O-Tigers, he managed to maintain his success, notching a 3.86 ERA down the stretch.
Following his successful debut in 2006, the Tigers pushed him to the Midwest League for a true test of his abilities in 2007. He's picked up right where he left off, garnering serious consideration for the April Pitcher of the Month Award at West Michigan; and if not for an insane performance by fellow 2006-draftee Chris Cody, he might have walked away with the honor.
Below is a classic good-sized lefty prospect, with tons of potential. He uses his good pitcher's frame to generate a nice downward plane on a fastball that sits comfortably in the 88-91 range with a little late life. Despite the lack of overpower velocity, Below gets a lot of late swings from the way he hides the ball in his delivery, making it tough for hitters to pick up the ball out of his hand. So far this year, several Midwest League managers have praised his ability to move his fastball around the strike zone, working up and down equally well, while also challenging both sides of the plate with aplomb.
He compliments his fastball with an above-average curve that he works in the 78-81 range. Manager Tom Brookens wouldn't quite give him credit for a class 12-6 breaker, but he indicated that it had the potential to become a very good out pitch. He's made significant strides with the curveball since his time at LMC, and that progress bodes well for his continued success. Duane has demonstrated a potential third average offering with his change-up, though it lags a ways behind his top two pitches. He struggles with keeping his arm speed up on the change-up, giving the pitch away. If he can maintain arm speed and locate the pitch down in the zone, Below could become even tougher to hit down the road.
Below is a good athlete with solid instincts in the field. He gets off the mound quickly and can handle most plays in front of him. In the past, some reports have indicated that he's had a little trouble with some throws on balls down the third base line, but more recent indications are that some of these issues are being ironed out.
If there is one significant knock against Duane, it's likely that he gets too hyped up and works too quickly early in games. The first couple innings tend to be his rockiest, before he settles down and gets in a good groove on the mound. Aside from that, Below's pace on the mound is exceptional, keeping his defenders on their toes, and moving the game along quickly. His poise in critical situations is outstanding, and he wants the ball in the biggest of games.
Overall, his ceiling probably lends pretty well to a solid mid-rotation starter, but he'll need to make progress with that third pitch (change-up) to approach that projection.
Performance Level Team W-L ERA G GS SV SO BB IP AVG A
Below's been healthy in his brief professional career, continuing a trend that started while in junior college. His frame is solid and he uses his lower half well to help repeat a clean set of mechanics.
Expect Duane to log 25-30 starts for the Whitecaps this season, as he needs to gain substantial experience before moving further up the ladder. At only 21-years old, he's in a good position on the age-level curve, and should be well-prepared for a jump to the Florida State League in 2008.
There are several names in the mix to become the organization's top lefty behind Andrew Miller, including Below's teammate Chris Cody, and Flying Tigers starter Luke French. All three pitchers have been impressive early in the season, and warrant attention. Below is probably the most projectable of the three, with the greatest potential for remaining in a rotation long term, and knocking on the door of a big league staff.
Mark Anderson covers the Tigers' minor league system and all of minor league baseball for TigsTown.com. He can be reached at Mark@TigsTown.com.