Position: Left-handed Pitcher
Rapada is one of those nice stories in baseball; an undrafted free agent signing that worked his way slowly through the minor leagues to be on the verge of a big league job. After one non-descript season at Virginia State University, Rapada signed with the Chicago Cubs in July 2002. During his debut season, Rapada managed a 1.50 ERA in 12 relief appearances for Boise of the Northwest League. Clay moved on to Lansing of the Midwest League for his second season but struggled through 21 outings, allowing more hits than innings pitched, not missing bats, and posting a 5.31 ERA.
A return tour through the Midwest League in 2004 resulted in an impressive season that saw Rapada named to the League All-Star team while striking out 91 batters in 85 innings. The 2005 and 2006 seasons were definable successes for Clay, as he posted impressive numbers while working his way from High-A all the way to AAA at the close of the '06 campaign. With his successes throughout his career, Rapada had put himself on the radar as a reliable reliever; one that could help the Cubs as soon as the 2007 season.
While at Iowa in 2007, Clay posted a 3.58 ERA in 55 appearances before the trade to Detroit. The Tigers shipped slumping outfielder Craig Monroe to the pennant-chasing Cubs for a player to be named later, which turned out to be Rapada
Rapada was a more conventional lefty at the time he turned pro, only adopting his low-3/4 slinging motion after he started working with the Cubs instructors. Clay breaks his hands quickly, hiding the ball behind his back leg, before slinging it towards home plate from his low arm slot. He works from the extreme first base side of the rubber, making it extremely tough for lefties to pick him up.
Clay's fastball works in the 88-91 mph range with some late life, and he has hit as high as 93 in the past. He is most effective when he works down the mound, pounding the lower part of the zone with hard fastballs on both corners. His slider is an above-average pitch, but battles his delivery at time and subsequently the effectiveness of the pitch. He has a tendency to drop his elbow too far trying to exaggerate the spin on the ball, which flattens out the two-plane pitch, making it extremely hittable. He has toyed with a change-up throughout his minor league career, with only minimal success.
Command has never been a strong point for Rapada, but he has made strides in recent seasons, and could still improve as he continues to work with professional instruction. Clay is a poised pitcher who is not rattled in difficult situations. He repeats his ‘funky' delivery quite well, which should lend to improved strike-throwing ability.
Clay is a prototypical lefty specialist; a guy that could carve out a lengthy Major League career on the simple basis that good bullpen lefties are difficult to come by in this day and age.
Performance Level Team W-L ERA G SV SO BB IP WHIP GF AAA
Clay has been generally healthy throughout his career. Despite his low arm angle, he manages to avoid throwing across his body and projects to remain healthy now that he has exited the most critical injury period of a young pitchers life.
Expect Clay to get ample opportunities next spring to earn a job in the Detroit bullpen. With the rollercoaster season experiences by the Tigers' relievers, there is likely to be some flux in the components prior to the 2008 campaign. Rapada has proven all he needs to at the minor league level, and is ready for a true shot in the bigs.
He is unlikely to ever be a dominant multi-hitter reliever, but he could serve a valuable role on a contending club, getting big outs against lefties in critical situations. I expect the Tigers to have a pretty open competition for the bullpen lefty job, much like the did prior to this season; with guys like Bobby Seay, Tim Byrdak, Mackay McBride, and Rapada all in the mix.
Mark Anderson is TigsTown's Managing Editor and feature Minor League writer. He can be reached at Mark@TigsTown.com.