Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Spring Intrigue - Can Maikel Cleto Contribute in 2014?

One thing you will find out about me: I am a sucker for a plus-plus fastball. Especially one that consistently hits triple digits. That’s ok. Most Major League General Managers are too. There are very few people on Earth that can throw a baseball over 100 mph. 

Maikel Cleto is one.

The big right-hander has moved around a lot in his career. He will turn 25 in 2014, and the Royals are his fourth organization. Cleto was claimed off of waivers from St. Louis. The Cardinals acquired him from the Mariners, who had previously taken him in a trade from the Mets.

As mentioned in the 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook: “Cleto has a live arm, but his below-average control and lack of command prevent him from getting the most out of his stuff… He can blow his heater by hitters, but focuses on velocity at the expense of throwing quality strikes.” 

Sounds like a reliever, that may be a little rough around the edges, right? Especially since he had only partly developed a slurvy secondary pitch and an afterthought of a change-up. However, likely due to his big, durable frame, both the Cardinals and Mariners were bound and determined to keep Cleto a starter as long as possible. He logged 140 innings in 2008, primarily in the South Atlantic League, as a 19-year-old. He was hit hard in the low-minors, having never had fewer hits than innings pitched in the Mariners organization, and his strikeout numbers were not as impressive as one might hope. In fact, a mechanical flaw in his delivery caused him to open up too early and give hitters a nice, long look at the baseball. 

Things began to click when he was acquired by the Cardinals for Brendan Ryan. In 2011, Cleto started the season in the Florida State League, then quickly moved up to Springfield. By June, he was in the big leagues and made two appearances out of the bullpen before moving down to AAA. The Cardinals insisted Cleto remain a starter and he logged 134.2 innings in the minors that season before returning to St. Louis in September. On the whole, Cleto pitched well in 2011, but he was shuttled around the system quite a bit.

The Cardinals committed Cleto to the bullpen in 2012. His numbers were inflated by a rough start to the season in which he allowed eight earned runs in his first four appearances. However, he settled down and put together a decent season and made a midseason transition to St. Louis, appearing in nine games. His command was improved, but far from great. He walked just two in nine innings, but allowed 13 hits and seven earned runs. On the (very) bright side - he struck out 15 hitters.

Fifteen strikeouts in nine Major League innings offered just a taste of his potential. It is what gets guys like me excited and is what excited the Mariners, Cardinals, and Royals. Still, the Cardinals kept Cleto in the rotation. He made nine starts in Memphis, and while he held opponents to a .228 average as a starter, he also held a 6.92 ERA at the time he was waived. 

While Cleto did not make an appearance for the Royals in 2013, he showed promise in Omaha. After a start in his first appearance (why?), Cleto worked the rest of the year out of the bullpen. He remained stretched-out, often working more than an inning and threw between 20-40 pitches per outing. Slowly but surely, his numbers improved and at the end of the year he had a 3.55 ERA (2.91 as a reliever) and held hitters to a .248 batting average (.232 out of the pen) - the second best mark of his career. He also kept the ball in the ballpark, allowing just one homer. In ten August appearances, Cleto allowed just two runs in 14.1 innings.

Cleto has allowed plenty of big innings, but he can put together long stretches of effectiveness. He does not have the secondary pitches needed to start, but if given the opportunity to work short outings out of the bullpen - and only be required to occasionally mix in his downward breaking ball - I believe he may be able to make an impact. 

I mean, the guy hits 100.

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