Winter Meetings: Pirates take flyer on flame-thrower
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Only time will tell if the Pirates misfired in selecting flame-throwing reliever Evan Meek yesterday with the No. 2 pick in Major League Baseball's Rule 5 draft.
And only a larger sample size will tell if Meek will continue misfiring baseballs, as he did for much of his career until this year.
But there can be no mistaking this..
"Oh, I am so excited!" Meek fairly shouted through the phone from his home in Washington state. "I mean, come on, man, I didn't sleep all night and ... man this is such a great chance for me! I can't wait to get to Pittsburgh!"
Meek, a 24-year-old right-hander capable of regularly hitting 95 mph, had a 4.30 ERA, 69 strikeouts and 34 walks in 67 innings for Montgomery, the Tampa Bay Rays' Class AA affiliate. And he followed that with a dominant stint in the Arizona Fall League.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Meek, the Pirates unconditionally released beleaguered infielder Jose Castillo, who now is a free agent.
Castillo was going to be non-tendered by the Dec. 12 arbitration deadline, anyway. So, when general manager Neal Huntington and his staff spent part of these Winter Meetings forming a list of "two or three" players they liked in the Rule 5, it was decided to cut Castillo yesterday morning.
Huntington acknowledged he tried to trade Castillo.
"We think Jose is going to continue to be a solid major-league player," Huntington said. "He does have some talent, some ability. We inherited a very difficult situation, tried to see if we could work through it and, ultimately, decided it wasn't in either party's best interests to continue the relationship."
Castillo, 26, had a .256 average in four seasons with the Pirates, including a 2007 in which he was relegated to bench duty and fell to .244 with 19 extra-base hits. His final home run came Aug. 14, 2006.
Castillo made $1.9 million and likely would have gotten a raise through arbitration. That, coupled with issues management had about his work ethic and passion, surely dominated the decision.
Tampa Bay, picking first in the Rule 5, chose starter Tim Lahey and later traded him to the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates followed with Meek, the player thought to be atop of their board, and made the $50,000 claim.
"Evan Meek is a power arm who gets a lot of ground balls, with a three-to-one ratio to his fly balls, and can strike guys out," Huntington said. "Bullpen help is hard to come by, and we think this guy has a chance to come in and make our club."
A Rule 5 pick must remain on the major-league roster all of the following season to be retained. If not, he must be offered back to Tampa Bay for $25,000. Huntington's plan is to see if Meek can earn a spot out of spring training, then go from there.
Most of Huntington's moves regarding pitching have been aimed at adding velocity to an organization in dire need of the stuff, and this was no exception.
Scouts have seen Meek hitting 97 mph going back to when the Minnesota Twins made him their 11th-round draft pick in 2002. He was a starter at the time, and he opened with a fine stretch of short-season ball the following year.
Then, as Meek recalled, "Things didn't go so well for a while."
Meek was spraying balls from the outset of 2004 in Class A, walking 15 in 5 2/3 innings, and was sent back to the rookie level. When the Twins gave him a second shot in Class A in 2005, he was even wilder.
The velocity showed the arm was fine. But the head ...
"I was thinking too hard, trying too hard, throwing too hard," Meek said.
The Twins released him midway through that season, and Meek stepped away from baseball for several weeks. That fall, the San Diego Padres signed him and worked with him on the side, gradually improving his control.
Meek pitched adequately enough in Class A that San Diego was able to trade him to Tampa Bay in August 2006 for major-leaguer Russell Branyan. The Rays converted him to relief in to minimize control issues, and that provided a springboard.
A concussion and stiff shoulder brought a scattered first half this past season, but Meek finished in pristine form, not allowing a run from Aug. 9 until season's end. Then, in the Arizona League, he allowed one run and three hits while fanning nine and walking five in 9 2/3 innings.
"It's just something I worked out for myself," Meek said. "Of course, people helped me. But I think I just realized I had to learn how not to overthrow everything. All I wanted to do before was to blow the fastball right by everybody."
So, he implemented a slider -- one he still calls a "show pitch" -- and was leaning more on his splitter. Most important, he shaved 3-4 mph off that fastball to allow for easier control.
"When I need to rear back, I can still do it. But it's been so much more comfortable pitching when I get ahead in counts, getting ground balls."
The Pirates, who lost no players in the major-league portion of the draft, claimed three pitchers in the Class AAA portion: Right-handed starters Josh Hill and Mauricio Mendez were claimed from Minnesota and the Boston Red Sox, respectively. Left-handed reliever Corey Hamman was claimed from the Detroit Tigers.
Two players were lost in that portion: Detroit took right-handed starter Clayton Hamilton of Blackhawk High School, and the Florida Marlins took shortstop Smelin Perez.
The Pirates claimed one player in the Class AA portion, starter Rafael Cruz Chavez from the Los Angeles Angels.
NOTES -- The Pirates left the Winter Meetings without a major move, but they are thought to have laid plenty of groundwork for trades, including possibilities for outfielder Xavier Nady. ... The list of teams in contact with free-agent Japanese closer Kazuo Fukumori, including the Pirates, has grown to 10. No resolution on that front appears likely for a few more weeks.
First Published December 7, 2007 12:00 am