Spokane Indians manager Tim Hulett is as confident as a short-season A manager can be in his pitching staff going into the season.
Especially in his five-man starting rotation.
“My first year we had a good group of guys that were very good right off the bat,” said Hulett, who begins his fifth summer as the Indians’ skipper. “They threw strikes, they pitched fast and they went after hitters. They’re saying this group can be as good as or better than that group.”
The projected gem of the starters is 18-year-old David Perez. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound righthander draws the opening assignment Friday night when the Indians entertain the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes at 6:30.
According to one minor league scouting site, Perez is ranked No. 9 in the Texas Rangers’ top 20 prospects. The Indians are affiliated with Texas.
Perez, who is from Santo Domino, Dominican Republic, signed as a free agent in 2009. He spent his first professional season last summer in the Dominican Summer League where he started 14 games, posting a 4-4 record with a 1.41 ERA. He struck out 62 in 64 innings while allowing just eight walks and no homers. He limited opponents to a .202 batting average.
“Fans are really going to enjoy watching him pitch,” Hulett said. “He has a huge upside just in his body alone. He has a great athletic body and long arms. Pitching comes down to leverage – how can you use your leverage and can you pitch with a down angle. The taller you are the more down angle you can pitch with because your release is a lot higher. We want to keep his development on track because he’s going to be a special one.”
Perez has some pop on his pitches, too. He’s been clocked as high as 97 mph, and the Indians saw that up close and personal Wednesday when he pitched batting practice.
“We’re thinking he’s just going to come out there and get his work in because he’s going to start (tonight),” Hulett said. “He was bringing it pretty good. I was thinking ‘let’s put some of that in your pocket and save it for opening night’. He looked comfortable on the mound.”
The other starters will be righties Santo Perez (no relation), Richard Alvarez and John Kukuruda and lefty Victor Payano. That leaves 11 others, including 2011 second-round pick Will Lamb (Clemson University) and eighth-round selection Kyle Hendricks (Dartmouth), working out of the bullpen.
Considering the Rangers’ philosophy is to limit starting pitchers to 75 pitches coupled with a 76-game schedule, Hulett said there will be plenty of innings to go around.
“Believe me, the season is long and they’ll get a lot of innings,” Hulett said.
Hulett is particularly excited about reliever Matt West, a converted third baseman who was a second-round pick in 2007 out of Bellaire, Texas.
With one game to go in the Arizona Rookie League in 2007, West was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
“That’s history,” West said.
A highly touted hitter out of high school, West never lived up to the billing. Now in his fifth season in the minors, he believes the switch is his best path to the majors.
West was asked to consider switching to pitching with a week to go in spring training. Then he spent the past two months at extended spring training where he pitched 16 innings.
The Rangers hope to groom West into a closer.
“He was very impressive at extended spring,” Hulett said. “He’s going to be a nice surprise.”
The 6-1, 215 West said he topped out at 99 mph and consistently threw 95-97.
“I’m all for this change,” West said. “I love pitching.”
Hulett said position changes, particularly to pitcher, don’t work most of the time.
“Take a position player and try to make him a pitcher generally doesn’t work out unless you show something the first time pitching,” Hulett said. “He was told he had to be a 94 mph guy. He said he was going to throw 94. He came out and showed them something.”
Hulett thinks West can put up some eye-popping numbers on the radar that’s displayed on the Avista Stadium scoreboard.
“He was pitching in the high 90s in front of about 10 people in extended spring,” Hulett said. “Get a couple of thousand in the stands and the game on the line and he comes in and I hope they have three digits on the scoreboard.”
Easy to see why Hulett lights up about his pitching staff.