The minor league regular season wraps up on September 3rd. For Altoona, they are in a position right now to extend their season, either by rallying to take first in their division, or by holding on to second place for the other spot in the playoffs. For Eduardo Vera, he has somewhere between five and seven starts left to show the Pittsburgh Pirates what he can do on the mound. Every start at this point is big for him.
Vera reaches minor league free agency at the end of this season. At this point in his career, he’s not just pitching for the Pirates, he’s pitching for all 30 Major League teams. His preference is to stay with the team that originally signed him back in 2012. His goal coming into this season was to do everything he could to earn a 40-man roster spot. Some of that is out of his control though.
The Pirates have a lot of players who need to be added to the 40-man roster this winter to avoid the Rule 5 draft. That group includes Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer, JT Brubaker, Jason Martin and the top prospect in the system, Mitch Keller. There’s also the case of Pablo Reyes, who just like Vera, was signed as an international free agent prior to 2012 and he’s making a strong case for a 40-man roster spot.
Reyes has had seven years to show the Pirates what he can do. Vera has basically had five seasons. Tommy John surgery at the end of Spring Training in 2015 wiped away that entire year and then limited Vera to 8.2 innings in the Gulf Coast League during his comeback in 2016. When you take a look at where he was 24 months ago and compare it to now, it’s amazing to see the progress the 24-year-old right-hander from Mexico has made.
To fully realize the progress from Vera over that time, you have to go back to the start of his pro career. He spent his first two seasons in the Dominican Summer League and the reports we received on him were very bland. He threw a lot of strikes, didn’t throw hard or have any plus off-speed pitches, but he had a 6’3″ frame that still had room to fill out. Nothing really changed when we finally got live looks at him in 2014 in the GCL and there wasn’t much to see with the stats.
Then came the injury and the few rehab appearances in the GCL 14 months later, which really cut in to any potential steps forward during that time. He was still a few months shy of his 21st birthday when he had his surgery, so we had not yet written him off as a potential prospect at that point, but things certainly looked bleak.
Cut to early Spring Training in 2017 and as I was sitting at my computer typing up an article, I got a message out of the blue from one of the other players at Pirate City. It told me to keep an eye on Vera, he was a totally different pitcher this spring. Everything was better about him compared to 2014 in the GCL. We included him as a notable player outside of the top ten prospects in our 2017 West Virginia season preview, but wanted to see for ourselves before we were sold on the improvements. After all, this is someone who we said would have a tough time sticking around the system due to what we saw in person and the ill-timed injury that would cost him nearly two full seasons.
It really didn’t take long before we were impressed, but then he kept getting better. It wasn’t just results, it was his pitches too. Around mid-season, we got a report that he hit 97 MPH. This was coming from someone who we saw in the GCL sitting around 89-90 MPH. What was important about the new velocity was that he didn’t sacrifice any control. He was throwing harder while still throwing just as many strikes. It also made his changeup a better pitch and his curve was becoming an effective out pitch.
Perhaps what was most impressive with Vera, looking back on 2017, was that he threw 132.1 innings, which was 123.2 more than 2016. Even with all of those added innings, his last three starts in 2017 were all seven inning performances with a total of three runs allowed. I was at one of those games and he was hitting 95 MPH consistently, touching 96. That is quite a remarkable achievement from anyone in their first full season back from Tommy John surgery, but this was coming from someone who we saw struggling to hit 90 MPH at times.
Vera went into the 2018 season knowing what was on the line this season and he had two goals in mind, one short-term and one long-term. He wanted to get to Altoona as soon as possible and he wanted that 40-man roster spot.
The first goal was reached rather quickly. After going eight innings on May 23rd, he was told he was moving up to Double-A. In nine starts with Bradenton, he had a 2.95 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. He went at least six innings in each of his last eight starts. The only reason it wasn’t nine of nine starts with 6+ innings was because he wasn’t stretched out for six innings yet on Opening Day.
That stretch of 6+ inning outings continued at the next level, as he went seven innings in each of his first three games with Altoona. It ended badly on June 17th when New Hampshire hit him up for seven runs in 3.2 innings, which was followed by six runs over five innings a week later. Those two starts really did a number on his Double-A totals, which now show a 4.48 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP in 13 outings. Without those games, he has a 2.76 ERA in 11 starts for the Curve.
It his latest start, Vera allowed two runs over six innings against the Trenton Thunder on Thursday night. He didn’t walk any batters, while picking up five strikeouts and posting an 8:4 GO/AO ratio.
Vera has been doing a better job lately of keeping all of his pitches down in the zone. He learned rather quickly that Double-A hitters are much better than High-A hitters and they adjust quicker to the pitcher. That has led to more ground balls recently, which is important because he isn’t a huge strikeout pitcher. His pitch-to-contact style is effective because he mixes four pitches and throws a lot of strikes. That helps him accumulate innings, with over 260 innings pitched during the 2017-18 seasons combined.
The stuff this season from Vera is a little different than what we saw last year. He has lost a tick on the fastball, but the control is still strong. Instead of the 93-95, touching 97 we saw last year, he’s 92-94 MPH, touching 95 in most starts. He added a slider this season, though it was a pitch he had before he signed. The Pirates liked the slider at the time, but took it away to have him work on his curveball. Vera’s go to off-speed pitch is his changeup, which he throws a lot more often than most pitchers. On a given night, he will use the pitch 20 times. Sometimes more if it’s really on that night.
What’s interesting about adding the slider back is that he is really in “show me” mode at this point. His curve is a slower pitch, sitting in the high-70s. The slider gives him a much different look from the curve, coming in as high as 87 MPH with a sharper break. He thought he needed that pitch to be successful this season. The Pirates have more of a hands off approach with him this year. They want to see what he’s got and they want him to show them why he is worth keeping around. It’s not about development at this point. They want to see results. That’s not an unusual approach.
I was able to talk to Zack Dodson after Vera told me about the coaching approach this season. Dodson had a similar experience in 2014 and 2015. He was told in 2014 to show them why he should return for the 2015 season. No more hands on coaching or worrying about development over results. Dodson did just that, finishing strong in 2014. Then in 2015 he was basically on his own for his final year before free agency. He wasn’t being shunned by coaches, they were there for any questions. To put it in Dodson’s own words, “There comes a time when it’s basically, get guys out.”
That’s where Vera is right now. The Pirates want to see him get guys out. They want to see why they should bring him back next year. They want him to earn a 2019 contract and that’s what Vera is trying to do each and every time he takes that mound.