What do John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, Phil Humber and Donnie Veal have in common? They were all highly drafted and touted pitching prospects who fell well short of expectations as they ascended the minor league ladder... until they came to the White Sox. Then what happened?
Coop fixed 'em.
It has become so well known, not just among Sox fans but around all of baseball, that it has taken on a spirit not unlike the Dos Equis commercials: the world's most interesting pitching coach. Send Don Cooper your tired, your mechanically flawed, your surgically repaired and your mentally disjointed. Pitchers looking to reignite their careers ask their agents, "what about the White Sox?" Under his wing, the patina of failure is wiped clean, and the gleaming talent beneath returns to see the light of day.
This is the legend of "Coop Will Fix 'Em", and yeah, it has gotten a little over the top. There is some truth to it, as with most legends. But there have been plenty of failures along the way too. The road to salvation is littered with the arms of Jeff Marquez, John Van Benschoten, David Aardsma, Mike MacDougal, Mitch Mustain and Zach Stewart. Stewart is actually coming back for another shot, as he was claimed off waivers by the White Sox, then outrighted to Charlotte.
So who is looking to graduate from the Cooper Class of 2013?
Let's focus on the charts of three very talented arms whom the Sox picked up in the past year, and who will look to Cooper and his staff to resurrect their careers...
Moskos has a bit of a head start on the rest of the crowd. The 1st round, 4th overall pick of the 2007 draft (Pittsburgh) was claimed by the Sox in July of last season. Drafted higher than most thought he would be, he was touted by Pittsburgh as a guy who could move up the system quickly. Daniel failed to live up to expectations as a starter up through 2009, posting uninspiring core and peripheral numbers but still flashing a fastball that touched 97 and inducing a lot of ground balls. In 2010 he was moved to a relief role, and finally started showing the results that the Pirates were hoping for: a 1.52 ERA, WHIP just over 1.00, and a K/9 rate above 9.0. Then he was promoted to AAA, experienced elbow problems, couldn't find the strike zone and was hit around like a pinata. He hasn't put up the sort of numbers he had in 2010 at AA again.
Elbow issues have resulted in a loss of velocity, and he's now throwing 90-91. He also shows control problems, with a BB/9 rate around 5.8 in 2012, and a 32:22 K:BB ratio. His numbers did shift on arrival with the Sox though - he was hit more often (.313. AvgA), but his K rate improved (from 7.1 to 9.3), and his ground ball rate bounced back (GO/AO from 0.30 to 1.06). But he still suffers from a combination of poor control and hittable pitches.
Cooper, Rich Dotson, Bobby Thigpen and the rest of the staff excel at improving control through consistency, but with Moskos' elbow issues, his reverse splits making him an unlikely LOOGY candidate, and the fact that when he does throw strikes he gets hit hard... he's got a tough road ahead of him.
In November the Sox signed Trevor Reckling to a minor league contract, with an invite to Spring Trianing. Reckling was the #4 prospect in the Angels' system in 2009 and 2010, and appeared in the 2009 Futures Game while still just 20 years old. He was LAA's 8th round pick in 2007 at age 18, and moved up quickly through the system, reaching AAA in 2010. In 2009 at AA just a couple years after being drafted out of high school, he posted a 2.93 ERA, struck out a bit over 7 batters per 9 innings, and induced ground balls at a decent clip (1.53 GO/AO).
But things fell apart pretty quickly after that. His 2010 AA numbers were unspectacular, but then things got ugly in AAA that same season in 14 starts: 8.53 ERA, 2.14 WHIP, .339 AvgA, 6.5 BB/9, 5.9 K/9 and a GO/AO below 1. 2011 at AA he improved the ERA and WHIP to respectable levels, and decreased his walk rate dramatically to 3.2 BB/9, but his K rate also dropped (to 5.7) and he still wasn't getting ground balls like he used to. Trevor missed some time that year with an elbow sprain. In 2012 he was demoted to High A Inland Empire, where he was rocked in just 4 appearances (walking 15 in 6.2 IP), and was then released.
Reckling had what appeared to be a very nice tool box: a 91-94 fastball, a big moving curve and a good change-up. But his velocity was most recently in the 88-92 range on the heater, and he has some mechanical issues (which may be related to the elbow sprain, cause or effect). The change from ground ball to fly ball pitcher, lack of control and elbow issues are all red flags. But he is also still just 23, and Cooper et al do have a history of doing good work with pitchers' mechanics. If he can stay healthy and refine his mechanics, he certainly could prove worth the flyer the Sox took on him.
Last week, the Sox signed Andrew Brackman to a minor league deal with an ST invite. This 6'11" righty was drafted in the 1st round by the Yankees in 2007, signed to a 4-year major league contract, then had Tommy John surgery just a few weeks later. He has a big frame, and possessed a big time fastball and emerging breaking pitches.
Brackman finally got to pitch in 2009 in A ball, posting some encouraging strikeout numbers (103 K in 106.2 IP) but also walking the world (76 walks for a 6.4 BB/9 rate). Despite this, he still made the 2009 MLB Top 100 Prospects list. In 2010 he split time between A+ and AA, posting some decent results at the higher level (3.01 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 3.4 BB/9, 7.8 K/9), and he moved even further up that prospect list to 78th. Then in 2011 at AAA, he lost all semblance of control: 96 IP, 75 BB, 75 K, and his core results suffered as a result. He had a brief and ugly 3 game stint with the Yankees, and then after the season, he was released to become a free agent.
In 2012, Cincy signed him to a major league deal (at the rookie minimum), but he never saw the majors. He started the season at AAA, where he walked 16 batters in 17.1 innings and posted a 9.87 ERA in 5 starts. He was demoted to High A, where he did better but still not good, primarily as a reliever: 1.60 WHIP, 5.1 BB/9, 6.3 K/9.
Why did the Sox pick him up? He's a Randy Johnson-height lefty who can still hit the mid 90's with the fastball, has a good curve, and also throws a slider and change-up. He'll be 27 this season, and only has 4 years of pro ball under his belt. The Sox are obviously hoping they can fix some mechanical sloppiness, and help get him some control.
There are a few other arms in the flyer category that the Sox acquired this offseason, whose name could potentially pop up during the season.
David Purcey, yet another former 1st round lefty, comes to the Sox for his age 31 season and has 87 major league games under his belt. He's also had control problems and mechanical issues (notice a theme?), but has at times posted very high strike out numbers, including 9.8 K/9 at AAA last season.
Jeff Gray is back with the Sox for the second time (was in the Sox pen for 6 games in 2011). The righty spent 2012 with the Twins, posting some poor results (5.71 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 3.8 BB/9, 4.5 K/9), and now he's back on a minor league deal. Jeff's results with the Sox in 2011 stand out as his best look in his career thus far, so maybe Cooper thinks he needs more of his magic.
The Dodgers gave up on RH reliever Ramon Troncoso after 4 seasons of shuttling between AAA and the big club, and the Sox signed him to a minor league deal as well. He spent all of 2012 with AAA Albuquerque.
Last but not least, there is Zach Stewart. Again. After being acquired from Toronto in 2011, he put up two frustrating half seasons with the Sox bopping back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, posting ERA's in the 6's, WHIPS 1.50+, and getting hit around like a pinata. He was then traded with the Stealth Elf to Boston for Kevin Youkilis in 2012, and has now been claimed back by the Sox off waivers. He's not on the 40-man roster, as he passed through waivers unclaimed and was outrighted to Charlotte. But he'll likely get a long look in Arizona this spring.
This is a talented bunch of arms up and down the list, and history indicates there is a good chance we see at least one or two of them with the big club in 2013. It should be fun to see which of them steps up, and just how many miracles Doctor Cooper can pull off this season.