Robby Rowland was about to lay down for a nap a few hours before tip-off in the Final Four game between Kentucky and Louisville when he got the call. Arizona Diamondbacks farm director called to inform Rowland that he had been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates received Rowland in a deal that allowed the Arizona Diamondbacks to keep 2011 Rule 5 pick Brett Lorin. Arizona drafted Lorin in December after the Pirates’ left the right-hander off the 40-man roster, making him unprotected for the draft. The Diamondbacks didn’t have a spot for him on the 25-man roster. They would have had to put him through waivers, taking a risk that another team would claim him, or that he would clear waivers and return to the Pirates. They liked the right-hander enough that they opted to pursue a trade to keep him.
The Pirates had their eye of Rowland, although this wasn’t new. The Pirates scouted Rowland heavily prior to the 2010 draft. They went to a lot of his games, and showed a lot of interest with letters and phone calls. The team liked what they saw, to the point where they considered taking him with an early pick. Arizona got there first, selecting Rowland with the sixth pick in the third round, four picks after the Pirates selected Mel Rojas Jr.
So far, Rowland hasn’t put up the numbers you’d expect from a third round pick. In fact, there’s only one way to describe Rowland’s numbers so far in his pro career.
“Bad,” Rowland said, with a laugh, about his stats.
Rowland spent the last two years in the Pioneer League, combining for a 7.01 ERA in 122 innings, with a 6.8 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 1.6 HR/9 ratio. It doesn’t help that the Pioneer League is one of the most hitter-friendly leagues in the minors.
“I feel like you can bunt a ball out of those stadiums,” Rowland said of the league.
But the poor numbers weren’t all due to the league.
“I thought it was all mechanical, looking back on it,” Rowland said of his struggles. “Coming from high school, I like to consider myself a three-quarters guy out of high school. And then along the way, guys started preaching ‘you’ve gotta have a 12-6 breaking ball’.”
Rowland started working on the 12-to-6 breaking ball, and thought that he would have to get on top of the pitch by throwing it over-hand. His arm slot gradually started getting higher and higher, which pulled his head to the side and pulled his front shoulder forward. That led to him leaving the ball up, which led to being hit hard.
“You can’t leave a ball belt-high,” Rowland said. “Even if it’s in and out, you can do that, you can go up and down, but you’ve got to be down in the zone. Pro ball in general. You can get away with it in high school just by throwing hard, but you gotta locate down and pitch down constantly and throw your breaking ball over for strikes. And that’s just something I got away from last year, and something I’m looking to get better on this year.”
Rowland worked with the Arizona pitching coaches during the Fall Instructional Leagues, working on dropping down to a high three-quarters arm slot. He also focused on positioning his head straight, getting away from pulling it to the side while he pitched. The delivery is still a work in progress for Rowland.
The right-hander also added a sinker, which made it easier to keep the ball down in the zone.
“I feel like I don’t have to worry about throwing it to a certain location,” Rowland said of the pitch. “I feel like I can throw it down the middle, let the movement run, and then end up at the knees.”
Rowland has a good mixture of pitches. He throws a four seam fastball, a sinker, a curveball, a change-up, and a split finger fastball. He’s comfortable with the circle change-up, and can throw it in any count, even when he’s behind in the count. He is still getting used to throwing the curve with his new arm slot.
“Ever since I changed the arm slot to [three-quarters] it’s been a little tough on me getting on top of it from the three-quarter,” Rowland said.
The right-hander throws his fastball in the 88-92 MPH range, and has touched 94 in the past. He’s behind schedule this spring, after coming down with mono the first week of Spring Training with the Diamondbacks. He missed a few outings, and only threw about six innings before the trade.
The Pirates have Rowland in extended Spring Training. He will throw a bullpen session on Saturday, then pitch in a simulated game next week. It’s unknown where he will end up this year, although one of the two short-season leagues seems likely. Rowland is hoping that, wherever he ends up, he won’t have a repeat of his totals to date. He spent a lot of time working with his dad on pitching down in the zone to avoid his problems from the last two years. His dad, Rich Rowland, spent parts of six seasons catching in the majors.
“I feel like I’m confident I won’t have another year hopefully like that, just because I can throw down in the zone consistently and throw breaking balls over for strikes; Throw a change-up when behind in the count,” Rowland said.
“Hopefully I can get back to what I was doing in high school that made them like me.”
GERRIT COLE TO MAKE HIS PRO DEBUT MONDAY
Gerrit Cole, the first overall pick of the 2011 draft, will make his pro debut on Monday with the Bradenton Marauders. Cole will make his debut on the road at Palm Beach, with the game taking place at 6:35 PM.
The Marauders opened the season last night with Colton Cain on the mound. A.J. Burnett will make a rehab start in Bradenton tonight, and Jameson Taillon will make his high-A debut tomorrow on the road in St. Lucie.
INTERNATIONAL BATS READY FOR A BREAKOUT
All spring I’ve been talking about some of the international bats in the lower levels of the system. I pointed out the defense and the line drive stroke from Alen Hanson. There was the raw power from Jose Osuna. The five tools that Willy Garcia has. And then there’s my sleeper pick this year, Gregory Polanco.
All four hitters were given the aggressive promotion from the GCL in 2011 to West Virginia in 2012. They responded well last night, leading the West Virginia offense to nine runs. Wilbur Miller’s recap of the game has more details, but for the basics:
**Alen Hanson went 3-for-4 with a double and a homer.
**Gregory Polanco went 3-for-5 with a triple.
**Willy Garcia went 3-for-5.
All three of these guys are toolsy players with a lot of upside. Osuna didn’t have as big of a debut, but ranks right up there with the rest of them, with his biggest tool being his raw power.
In 2009 the Pirates made an aggressive promotion, sending Starling Marte to full season A-ball in his first year in the United States. Marte responded with a breakout season, and never really looked back. He followed his 2009 season up with a strong campaign in an injury-shortened season at high-A in 2010. Last year he broke out at the Double-A level, winning the Eastern League batting title with a .332 average. He’s now the top hitting prospect in the system.
Hanson, Osuna, Garcia, and Polanco all have the potential to have a breakout season, just like we saw out of Marte in 2009. This isn’t just because they got off to a great start last night. This is something I’ve been saying all spring, and even before that. Osuna, Garcia, and Hanson rated 27th, 34th, and 37th respectively in the 2012 Top 50 prospect list found in the 2012 Prospect Guide.
Bradenton has the top two prospects in the system at the start of the year. They’ve got a lot of other interesting guys. But I believe West Virginia will be the most exciting team to watch this summer. They don’t have the most recognizable names, and they don’t have guys who are highly rated right now, but they definitely have the most upside on their roster, with a lot of guys who could find themselves ranked near the top of the system, maybe even as soon as 2013.