Albert Abreu, a 21-year old right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic, was recently traded to the Tampa Yankees from Charleston this past offseason for the big league veteran catcher Brian McCann.
"It was a new opportunity and a new beginning for me," Abreu said of the trade through the help of a translator. "I have always admired and dreamed of playing for the Yankees growing up".
Though his record last year might not reflect it, Abreu was widely considered one of the top pitching prospects for the Houston Astros. He went just 3-8 at two A-ball levels for Houston last season but did strike out 115 batters in 101.2 innings, and he says he believes he learned key aspects of the game last year to help him take his game to the next level this season.
"The preparation to learn the other team and their tendency as hitters was something I focused on a lot last year," he said.
For Abreu this year's Spring Training, his first ever with the Yankees, was an exciting new beginning. He had to find his way with new coaches and new teammates though, and just get a sense of what his new organization wanted him to work on. He did say his transition in his first Spring Training camp with the Yankees went rather seamlessly, however.
"[I] was learning the ins and outs of the Yankees and what we are judged on as pitchers," Abreu said. "Both organizations want you to attack the zone and be efficient I was progressing and getting ready for the season, getting locked in and ready to go."
It was in camp where Abreu's power arm caught a lot of immediate attention too. In fact, even though he was pitching for the Charleston RiverDogs in Spring Training camp current Tampa Yankees pitching coach Tim Norton could help but get a quick look at the newest Yankee acquisition.
"He looked terrific [in camp]," Norton said. "He had a great arm, great stuff. He is who we thought he was, a very solid, strong pitcher".
Norton could quickly see that Abreu had put in a lot of work in the offseason considering how well he looked right out of the gate so early in camp. Abreu, known more for his fastball over the years, even admits to focusing mostly on his changeup and overall command during the offseason, and learning to stay within himself more, personal directives and goals he had for himself when he broke Spring Training camp with the low-A Charleston RiverDogs back in March.
"I was throwing my changeup, throwing it for strikes, and using it effectively and with a purpose", Abreu said, noting that he is trying to be more than just a mere power arm.
The results were terrific too right from the start as he posted a 1-0 mark with a 1.84 in his first three games with Charleston and striking out 22 batters in just 14.2 innings. It was the improved control, however, that really stood out. After walking 58 batters in 101.2 innings last season, Abreu issued just three free passes during his time in the South Atlantic League earlier this month.
"The reports from Charleston said he was lights out and ready to challenge himself in Tampa," Norton said, and the numbers backed that up.
"I was excited," Abreu said, believing that he was ready for his promotion to Tampa. "I did not know when it was going to happen but I was stoked to move up a level and get going here in Tampa."
When Abreu arrived in Tampa, though he has been noted mostly for his fastball, he actually had five pitches. Prior to his Florida State League debut he was asked to pare down the repertoire and execute just three of them for the time being.
"The focus is not gaining pitches but taking a few away so I can be better with the three I have," Abreu admitted.
Focusing solely on his curveball and changeup combination secondary pitch-wise, and relying on his 95-100 mph fastball, the Yankees wanted him to work on perfecting the main three pitches and spend more time ironing out his mechanics.
"When he arrived in Tampa he came to us with a slide step so we just slowed him down [more]," Norton commented. "Now he has a better gatherer and load from the stretch."
The early returns were beyond favorable as Abreu held the Clearwater Threshers to just one run over seven innings in his high-A Tampa debut on Tuesday night, walking just two and striking out four.
"I was glad to be in Tampa and I was pleased with my performance," Abreu said. "I'm striving to get to the highest level I can. I was pleased with the my changeup in the 7th inning. That got me out of a jam".
"He was terrific," Norton emphatically added. "He made it look easy. His changeup was spot on, his curveball was solid, and he got better as the game went on. He has such a big arm that all he needs to do is stay within himself and manage a lineup."
It's easy to get ahead of one's self after a high-A debut like he had and even more so when looking at his overall start to the 2017 season, but Abreu knows everything comes in time and with experience.
"If I can finish higher than that, that’s great," Abreu said of another potential promotion down the road, "[but] I want to get more constant with my mechanics and delivery, throwing the same way every time. I need to repeat my stuff over and over, and keep getting better."
He plans on perfecting his three main pitches in Tampa going forward and to continue working on both his mechanics and command, but with the stuff he's showing early on in the 2017 campaign it's difficult to not envision a younger version of Luis Severino these days.
"He's a young arm," says Norton, who also coached Severino at the minor league level. "They're both high 90s and have tremendous changeups. But I think he has a better breaking ball than Severino [did] at age 21."