He was drafted after going 2-10, 6.87 as a college junior.  Had Tommy John surgery two years after that, months after the only time in his five minor league seasons that he showed up on Baseball America’s list of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects (and even then he only nailed down a number eight ranking).  

In his first taste of the big leagues, he posted a 6.94 ERA in 24 appearances (including six brutal starts [12.05 ERA]).  Two solid seasons followed, but then there was a 6.02 ERA out of the bullpen the year after that, leaving the pitcher with one minor league option remaining and an uncertain role.

Today, just over two years later, the odds that he’ll be the most sought-after starting pitcher on next winter’s free agent market are as good as anyone’s.

This isn’t really an article about tonight’s starting pitcher, C.J. Wilson, other than to point out that there were far more instances along the path of his development that made him a candidate for flameout than there were plotting out the arc that his career has taken.  The march to the top of a contending rotation isn’t always systematic.  It wasn’t with Colby Lewis, who was designated for assignment four times, outrighted three times, and released twice before taking his game to Japan.  It wasn’t for Cliff Lee, who was optioned to AAA after winning 46 games in three years, and left off Cleveland’s post-season roster.  It wasn’t for Wilson.

The competition in Surprise for the final two spots in the rotation (if not the final three) is heated, and the favorites coming into camp aren’t necessarily the ones leading the pack as we’re two weeks away from heading east, but if you’re one of the handful who emailed me after Derek Holland’s shaky effort yesterday, or if you’re in that camp with those folks, writing Holland off because of the eighth inning in Game Two of the World Series and claiming added conviction based on his uneven work this month, you ought to think back to what Wilson was at a similar stage in his career — not to mention as a pitching prospect.

What Holland did in his first full season out of Wallace State Community College — blitzing from Low A Clinton to High A Bakersfield to AA Frisco in one season while amassing a 13-1, 2.27 composite record that paled in comparison to a Texas League playoff run in which he allowed one run in 20.2 innings — doesn’t factor into to whether he should open the 2011 season in the Rangers’ rotation, nor does what he did to Seattle on July 30, 2009, when many thought he was a day away from being traded, nor does his big win in Toronto on September 8 last year, snapping a five-game team losing streak that was the club’s longest since April.  

Nor do those 5.2 scoreless innings in his two great-looking ALCS relief appearances.

Holland was generally ranked as baseball’s number four or five lefthander prospect going into 2009 (behind David Price, Madison Bumgarner, and Brian Anderson, in some order, ahead of Brian Matusz for some and behind him for others), sitting between 20 and 40 on most Top 100 Prospects lists, none of which C.J. Wilson was ever considered for in his minor league days.  But all that is at this point is a media guide footnote, or filler in an almost-daily team-centric email newsletter.

It would have been easy to walk away from Holland’s dominant three-inning “statement” effort against Oakland a week ago, and all the post-game soundbite plaudits it prompted from the manager and pitching coach, and rush off to buy good seats for Sunday, April 3 against Boston.  Brandon McCarthy pitched well in that same game, another solid spring performance that was followed by yet another one yesterday, and Oakland is evidently close to rewarding him with a rotation spot, pleased with those nine strikeouts and zero walks in 13.2 camp frames.  We’ve seen how that episode frequently ends.

Thomas Diamond has already been optioned to AAA by the Cubs.

They’re not all David Price or Madison Bumgarner or Justin Verlander or Tim Lincecum, or Jon Lester, who will start against Wilson in Arlington on Opening Day.  Sometimes they’re Clay Buchholz, whose dazzling 2007 debut, which included a no-hitter among his three starts, was followed by a 2-9, 6.75 mark in 2008, or Zack Greinke, who went 5-17 in his second big league season and wasn’t sure he wanted to play baseball anymore.  Frequently, much more frequently in fact, they’re Thomas Diamond.

Holland wasn’t very good yesterday, unable to put Dodger hitters away when he wasn’t falling behind them, a far cry from his 37-pitch, 30-strike effort last Wednesday against the A’s.  In four innings of work, he surrendered four Los Angeles runs on seven hits and two walks, and the numbers may actually be kind.  It wasn’t World Series Game Two bad, but it served as a reminder that while a young pitcher can have all the talent in the world, all the minor league success and Top 100 honors, finding consistency against big league hitters regularly takes time, and sometimes never comes at all.  

Hey there, Adam Loewen.

As I walked up to take in the “B” game yesterday morning, the first uniformed Royal I saw was AAA hitting coach Tommy Gregg, whose late-’80s rookie card I’m embarrassed to admit I had enough volume of to wallpaper an entire big league dugout, which is where he’d spend most of his nine big league seasons.  Gregg isn’t going to have much time at Omaha this year to work with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas before they depart for Kansas City, but before we start punching our All-Star ballots out for those two young Royals hitters, all we have to do is remember that Alex Gordon is no longer anywhere near either one’s path, and once upon a time he was Hosmer and Moustakas himself.

The point is that the path isn’t always linear for hitters, either.  The Mets and A’s and Brewers questioned whether Nelson Cruz was going to right himself, and frankly, so did Texas three years ago, when the organization designated him for assignment, allowing the other 29 clubs a $50,000 opportunity to hang faith on the path themselves.  None did.

The Cruz precedent is among the reasons we all understand why Texas hasn’t acted yet on multiple opportunities to trade Chris Davis.  Hitters don’t always figure it out, and some that do take years to make the necessary adjustments.

But it’s a lot safer to bet on Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas than it ever was on C.J. Wilson or Thomas Diamond or Jair Jurrjens or Brandon McCarthy, or Derek Holland.  There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect, some say, and they’ll admit to the exaggeration, but the point is in the suggestion: Big league pitching success is difficult to predict, difficult to achieve.  And easy to overreact on, after three brilliant Cactus League innings or a brutal 13-pitch sequence in the World Series.

What would jump out at me more than a Surprise line score for Holland is to hear someone in charge of evaluating him tell reporters that he’s showing signs of Wilson’s work ethic and drive and his insane desire to get better.  I’m not suggesting Holland doesn’t already have those things, but we all know that Wilson’s wiring is a large part of what separates him from many other pitchers (and from what he probably would have ended up being himself).  

If Holland has some of that, if Tommy Hunter and Matt Harrison and Michal Kirkman and Eric Hurley have it, if Miguel De Los Santos and Martin Perez and Robbie Erlin and David Perez have it, the odds for each of them increase.  But it’s never a sure thing with a young pitcher, whether they’re Tommy John graduates who gave up seven runs per nine innings in college, or one of the shiniest prospects in the league.  

There’s No Such Thing as a Sure Thing, at least on the mound, but at the same time it’s a pretty good idea to summon up an extra helping of patience w
hen it comes to drawing a conclusion about what a young pitcher is, or will be.

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