Finally healthy, Fleck thrives in relief
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Diamondbacks minor leaguer Kaleb Fleck has not done it the easy way, but that has not kept him from becoming a top bullpen prospect.
Tommy John surgery after his junior year at Pittsburgh-Johnstown started a detour that forced Fleck from a likely selection in the first 10 rounds of the 2010 draft into the free agent pool.
The Diamondbacks never lost sight of Fleck and his prime stuff, however, and signed him as a free agent late in 2011. Their diligence soon could be rewarded. Fleck’s high-90 mph fastball has returned, his command is improving and his future appears limitless.
"He’s a legitimate big-league option moving forward," D-backs director of player development Mike Bell said of the right-hander reliever.
Fleck, 25, is putting the finishing touches the best of his three minor league seasons in the Arizona Fall League, and he has thrown well. He has 10 strikeouts in 7-2/3 innings and opened the season with five consecutive scoreless appearances before his ERA jumped to 3.52 after he gave up a two-run home run in his most recent outing.
His 2014 season earned him the extra time in the Fall League. Fleck was 7-3 with 17 saves and a 2.56 ERA in 56 appearances at Double-A Mobile, where he had the best peripherals of his career — 11.2 strikeouts and 7.8 hits per nine innings. When Mobile’s postseason run ended, Fleck was promoted to Triple-A Reno for its playoffs.
"Once we turned him loose, he hit the ground running," Bell said.
Getting back on the ground was the only time-consuming part in Fleck’s return. His fastball was clocked in the mid-90s at in college in 2010 but he said he felt elbow pain most of the season and it finally got to a point where he needed medical attention.
Doctors initially believed Fleck had a muscle tear and prescribed rehab rather than surgery, but the injury scared potential draft day suitors away. After trying rehab, Fleck opted to undergo Tommy John surgery in July and missed the 2011 college season.
He pitched in the summer Cape Cod League in 2009 and he returned late in the summer of 2011, 11-1/2 months after his surgery. Fleck said he felt good enough to get back on the mound, although the results were not always what he wanted.
"One outing would go really well, and the next time I went out it felt like I had never thrown a baseball before," said Fleck, an observation typical of pitchers in the first stages of recovery from Tommy John.
"It was definitely a roller coaster ride. The ‘velo’ (velocity) would be there. The arm strength was there. But it was the command was hit or miss at that time. The Diamondbacks took a chance, and I was definitely grateful for that."
D-backs scout Shawn Barton saw Fleck in Cape Cod and brought him to the D-backs’ training complex in Tucson for a workout. Fleck signed about two weeks before he was to return to college for a fifth year, and since he did not pitch in the D-backs’ system until 2012, he does not have to be protected in the Rule 5 draft until after next season.
"He had shown the velocity," said Ray Montgomery, the former D-backs scouting director who this week took a job with the Milwaukee Brewers. "He had the body, the arm, the athleticism to go with it. Sometimes when a guy gets injured, he goes off the radar a little bit. Shawn kept in touch with him."
Fleck’s ERA has never been above 2.90 in three minor league seasons, and he had three saves at Low-A South Bend in 2012 and nine saves at High-A Visalia in 2013 before his big season this year. He was used as the closer in the second half of the season at Mobile after Jake Barrett was promoted to Reno.
The D-backs’ bullpen is crowded, with closer Addison Reed and setup men Evan Marshall and Oliver Perez returning. Matt Stites brought his 97-mph fastball into the bullpen mix last season, but there is always room for power arms at the major league level. With Fleck, mid-90 thrower Barrett and 100-mph right-hander Enrique Burgos also could be candidates for promotion, especially if Brad Ziegler is delayed in spring training after arthroscopic knee surgery in September. Ziegler’s timetable is unclear.
Fleck said continuing to develop his slider was a priority this season. Visalia pitching coach Gil Heredia helped him find a comfortable grip in 2013, and Fleck said he was pleased with the progress he made this season, even if his walk rate (4.0 per nine innings) was more than he wanted.
"I had a lot more confidence in my slider this year, and I was able to put guys away a little easier, whereas in past years I had to rely only on my fastball. This year I was throwing a little bit harder, and to have secondary stuff to go with it made things a lot easier," Fleck said.
"It was strictly a confidence thing. Coming out of rehab, I was almost afraid to throw it, thinking I was going to hurt myself again. It was in the back of my mind. This year, it was like, ‘You know what I’m healthy. I can do it.’ I just had to trust my stuff and throw it with more conviction, and I think it really paid off. Every year I’ve felt stronger. I’m kind of getting my body back in the swing of things. My confidence has gone up each year. I’m really starting to believe I belong here. I can see myself as a big leaguer."
As Bell said, the D-backs can see that, too, even if took a more circuitous path.
"Definitely not the journey that I had envisioned," Fleck said. "I had hoped it would be a little bit smoother, but I guess in the end everything is kind of working out so far."