RIGHT HANDED PITCHER
| Born: February 10, 1986
Height: 6′ 7″
Drafted: 2nd Round, 68th Overall, 2007
How Acquired: Trade from Twins (for Kris Johnson)
College: University of Arkansas
Agent: BBI Sports Group
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|Welker was described by MLB.com as a “steady” starter for Arkansas. Previously he played JC ball at Seminole State in Oklahoma. When drafted, he had an above average, low-90s fastball that he threw on a good downward plane, average command, and a barely average slider. MLB.com stated that he could be a 4th/5th starter if he developed a third pitch. He missed much of his senior year in HS and his freshman year at Seminole State due to back problems and shoulder surgery, respectively. He followed in the Pirates’ traditions, under prior management, of overdrafts in round 2 and of drafting injury risks. After having almost no success as a starter, he moved to the bullpen and showed dramatically improved stuff, but he’s had to struggle with control issues. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher, with groundout to air out ratios generally well over two-to-one.
Pitched well in seven starts for State College. He had to be shut down in mid-August, though, due to forearm tightness.
Welker took big step backward at Hickory. Expected to be the team’s top starter, he struggled all year after missing part of April with a turned ankle. Opponents batted .307 against him and he had a very low K rate. His season came completely unglued in August, when he logged a 10.04 ERA and more walks than Ks. His velocity, and stuff generally, was down from when he was drafted.
Returned to low A and opened in the rotation, but eventually got demoted to the bullpen. The move didn’t help: his ERA was 6.21 as a reliever and 5.59 as a starter. His fastball rebounded to the low-90s and he didn’t get hit as hard as in 2008, with a .253 opponents’ average, but he had significant control problems while fanning only 6.1. He lost all 11 of his decisions, leaving him with a two-year W/L record in low A of 4-24.
In one of the more surprising developments of the year, Welker returned to West Virginia in 2010 as a full-time reliever and suddenly started throwing 96-98 mph. He had major control problems, but he fanned over a batter an inning and opponents hit only .198 against him. He got similar results after a mid-season promotion to Bradenton, with a .182 opponents’ average and very high walk rate, but not such a high K rate. He was deadly against right-handed batters, who hit only .107 against him on the season. Left-handed batters hit .313, with ten walks and just one strikeout.
Welker started off pretty much the same at Bradenton, struggling to throw strikes. After walking 16 in his first 19.2 IP, though, he walked just nine in his next 32.1, until the Pirates promoted him to Altoona in mid-August. In June and July, Welker had a WHIP of 0.82. Opponents hit .186 against him in high A, but his K rate was just decent. In eight games at Altoona, Welker had one disastrous outing, allowing five earned runs in one inning. He pitched well otherwise, allowing just five hits and a walk in nine innings in his other seven outings. He fanned nine in ten total innings in AA. At the end of the season, he wasn’t throwing as hard as in 2010, but was still sitting at 94-96 and keeping the fastball low, and was throwing a slider that was effective at times. He had no platoon split on the season as a whole.
The Pirates probably promoted Welker to Altoona to try to help in evaluating whether to add him to the 40-man roster, as he was eligible for the Rule 5 draft for the second time. They evidently liked what they saw and added him to the 40-man roster. He opened the season back at Altoona and pitched very well. His K rate was mediocre but he induced nearly four times as many groundball outs as air outs. His velocity wasn’t always consistent but it generally sat around 97. The Pirates promoted him to Indianapolis in early May. He struggled to throw strikes early on in AAA, walking a dozen in his first 14.1 IP, but he walked only six in his last 17.1. Left-handed batters hit only .227 against him in AAA, but he walked more of them (11) than he struck out (10). His ground out to air out ratio dropped to 1.52, which is still good.
Welker spent most of the season at Indianapolis, some of the time as closer. He got off to a strong start, allowing no earned runs in his first ten games through early May. The Pirates called him up at that point for a few days, but he didn’t see any action. Once he went back to AAA, he had one more scoreless outing, then gave up 11 earned runs in his next six games. He bounced back from that stretch, allowing no runs in eight June games. The Pirates called him up again in late June and he made his major league debut with two very brief, scoreless outings in which he showed off a fastball that sat at 97 mph. When he went back to AAA, he started struggling again, with a 6.23 ERA in July, before bouncing back again in August. On the season, Welker finally got his K rate over one per inning, but struggled periodically with his control. He held left-handed and right-handed hitters to almost exactly the same average, .231 and .232, respectively.
Welker was reported to be the player to be named later in the Justin Morneau trade. The trade wasn’t finalized until after the season, probably because some team claimed Welker off trade waivers. The Pirates reacquired him just six weeks later in exchange for Kris Johnson. He had an outside chance for a bullpen spot in spring training. but pitched poorly and was optioned to Indianapolis. After struggling through early May, mainly with control problems, he went on the disabled list, then had Tommy John surgery a month later.
Welker will be out until roughly mid-2015. He’ll be 29 by then and will have only an inning and a third of major league experience. Still, the 97-mph fastball he showed during his brief 2013 callup was one of the hardest in the majors, so the Pirates won’t give up on him easily. Making it harder will be the fact that he’ll be out of options unless they get a fourth one for him.
UPDATE: The Pirates designated Welker for assignment when they needed to clear a roster spot in July. Considering how long it’ll be until he can pitch again, they probably don’t expect to lose him.