PHOENIX — Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers dropped a handful of names recently when discussing his potential 2014 closer, including credentialed candidates J.J. Putz, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler.
Prospects Matt Stites and Jake Barrett also were among them, and while neither has played above Class AA, the climb to a major league bullpen can be swift for a pitcher with a power arm, especially on a team that had a major league-high 29 failed saved conversions in 2013.
“I get excited when I hear something like that to, because it makes me want to go out and have fun and work hard,” said Barrett, a former Desert Ridge High and Arizona State right-hander. “It gets me pumped to have spring training come around the corner and get after it.”
Both Stites, obtained from the Padres in the Ian Kennedy trade, and Barrett have been clocked in the high-90 mph range in their short careers, and both are putting the final touches on the 2013 season with the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League, widely known as a finishing school for top prospects.
Towers compared Stites to Braves closer Craig Kimbrel at the time of the July 31 trade, noting that Stites had been timed at 98 mph during his time with Class AA San Antonio this season, his third year after being the Padres’ 17th-round draft pick in 2011.
Stites heard Towers’ comments, but he did not want to look too far into the future in his first year in the organization.
“You can’t put too much thought into that or you will beat yourself up all offseason (and) put a lot of pressure on yourself, especially going into spring training,” Stites said. “I can’t think about that stuff. I am worried about going in in shape and ready for the season. If that’s where they put me, great. If they put me somewhere else, I’m happy to go out and play. I’m excited to pitch for the organization.”
Stites missed the final two weeks of the minor league season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy — he had been released from a San Antonio hospital about 15 minutes before learning of the trade — but he has been back on a mound for several weeks. He made three instructional league appearances before pitching in the Rafters’ opener last Tuesday. The results were not what he would have wanted — four hits and three earned runs in an inning that was prolonged when a foul ball dropped — but he reported no health issues.
“I was worried about executing pitches and being healthy. Being healthy worked out. I’ll take one at a time,” said Stites, 23, who was a starter at the University of Missouri but was moved to the bullpen when he signed.
“Nothing is better than the bottom of the ninth in their park with a one-, two-run lead. The fans are going crazy. That gets you more dialed in. That’s the fun part of the game, the ninth inning. That’s where I get my adrenaline. That’s where I want to be,” Stites said.
The numbers seems to bear that out. Stites was 2-2 with 2.08 ERA with 14 saves at San Antonio after a dominant 2012 at Class A Fort Wayne, where he was 2-0 with 13 saves and an 0.74 ERA in 42 appearances. His career WHIP is .702, and he has 150 strikeouts and 19 walks in 135 1/3 innings. Opponents are averaging 5.1 hits per nine innings in his 114 appearances, all in relief.
“If I’m down 2-0, 3-1 (in the count), I’m fuming at myself. I’m not going to give in, but I’m not going to give him first base. My style is, it’s going to be there, do what you can with it. It’s going to be a strike. I don’t like walks,” said Stites, 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds.
Barrett, the D-backs’ third-round draft choice in 2012, was clocked at 99 mph this season and threw a lot of strikes at Class AA Mobile after a midseason promotion. He averaged 1.1 walks per nine innings in a dominating half season, giving up four runs, one earned, in 24 appearances over 24 2/3 innings. His ERA was 0.36.
“I’ll attack hitters and I’ll pitch to contact right away, but if I’m 0-2, 1-2 right away, I’ll throw my nasty pitches out there, because I don’t like walking people at all. That’s my biggest pet peeve as a pitcher. I hate walks with a passion,” Barrett said.
Barrett simplified his delivery to throw only from the stretch this season, and he said that made a big difference. He also credited his Mobile defense — shortstop Nick Ahmed, a Fall League teammate, won the minor league Gold Glove at shortstop — with playing a part in encouraging him to throw strikes.
“Once they took away the windup and we started working out of the stretch more, I feel like I started to build up more power and more deception with my pitches. I just felt stronger out there,” said Barrett, 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds.
Barrett had two saves in the Southern League playoffs, when the BayBears finished one game short of a championship three-peat.
“Those are some fun games. The atmosphere, knowing it was the playoffs. A good adrenaline rush is what gets me going,” he said.
Both Stites and Barrett are using the Fall League to further polish their third pitch, a changeup, to go with the power-closer repertoire of fastball/slider.
“That helps so much against lefties if you can show that,” said Stites, who began seriously working on it last spring training. “I was playing around with a couple of different grips, and it started to feel more and more comfortable.”
Added Barrett: “The more pitches you have, the better you are going to be.”