Part 11 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers' Minor League system.
The reliever charged with getting one or two big outs late in the game, brought on to face same-handed hitters with the game on the line, generally isn't drafted or signed with that role in mind. With rare exceptions, you don't see a pitcher brought in from college or high school or the international free-agent market with the idea that he'll be groomed to be a right-on-right or left-on-left specialist.
Most of them are developed in the Minor Leagues as starters. From time to time, they kick off their careers on the farm as closers.
And on occasion, as third basemen.
When Texas signed Johan Yan out of the Dominican Republic in 2005, the question was whether the wiry, 6-foot-3 16-year-old with plus arm strength could handle shortstop or would need to move to third base. But eventually, the only question that mattered as far as his development was concerned was whether he'd ever hit. Through three seasons he hit .207 with no power, no running game and a remarkable 176 strikeouts in 425 at-bats. His career appeared on the verge of being over.
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
Texas decided to take a look at Yan on the mound in 2009, and the results weren't pretty at first. In 15 Arizona League appearances spanning 25 innings, he gave up 28 runs (26 earned, for a 9.36 ERA), allowing hitters two and three years younger to hit .310 off a fastball that touched 90 and a slider that needed work.
But the organization drew upon Yan's experience at third base in deciding to ask him to try out a new arm slot.
"Johan started out with a high-three-quarters delivery and wasn't getting anyone out," recalls Brad Holman, Yan's pitching coach at Low Class A Hickory in 2010 and High Class A Myrtle Beach this season. "But as an infielder, he was used to that low slot, especially coming in on slow rollers. We tried it out on the mound, and he got acclimated very quickly."
Yan's success with the new look was instant. After spending the spring of 2010 in extended spring training, he pitched most of the summer in middle relief for Hickory, holding the South Atlantic League to a .193 batting average, including .188 by right-handed hitters. In 40 innings, he scattered a dozen earned runs (2.70 ERA) on 28 hits and 11 unintentional walks, fanning 36 and yielding only two home runs.
He's been even better in 2011, sharing Myrtle Beach closing duties with Ryan Kelly. In 37 2/3 innings, he's allowed 28 hits and nine unintentional walks, punching out 43. He's converted all eight of his save opportunities, including four this month (in which he's allowed one run in 15 2/3 innings), and induced more than four times as many groundouts as flyouts, an extraordinary rate. And he continues to dominate righties, holding them to a .185 batting average and only two extra-base hits in 92 at-bats.
"The big thing Johan has done this season is he's learned to take his pitches into the strike zone and trust that," Holman says. "He gets so much bad contact."
Rangers senior director of player development Scott Servais is thrilled with Yan's progress. "Johan has had that deceptive sidearm delivery -- now he's showing the ability to pound the strike zone," Servais said. "His slider is getting better and he has gained a ton of confidence. He never beats himself."
While Yan's career path has been dramatically redefined since he joined the organization, the program for left-hander Joseph Ortiz has been more linear. The diminutive Venezuelan -- he stands only 5-foot-7 -- signed in 2006 but was so impressive in his debut summer in the Dominican Summer League (2.70 ERA, .212 opponents' average, 38 strikeouts and eight walks) that the Rangers made the stunning decision to assign him at age 17 to Low Class A Clinton in 2008.
Ortiz was four to five years younger than the hitters he held to a .204 average that summer, and it didn't matter what side of the plate they hit from. The same was true last year with Hickory, where left-handed batters hit .170 against Ortiz and right-handers didn't fare much better, hitting .198. Promoted this season to Myrtle Beach, where he works out of the same bullpen as Yan, he's holding the league to a .227 clip, including .182 by left-handed hitters.
"Joseph has been dominant in the past with his slider," says Holman, who featured the pitch as part of his own repertoire as a Mariners reliever in the early 1990s. "The key for him taking the next step has been to avoid getting into a slider rut, to make hitters respect the fastball, too."
But Holman acknowledges that the slider will be what separates Ortiz on his road to big leagues, just as it will be for Yan.
"Joseph spins his slider so well and can throw it for strikes in any count or sweep it outside the zone when he needs to," Holman said. "With Johan, he's learned to really pour his fastball in the zone, with tremendous sink. With his slot, the fastball takes off to the right, while his slider takes off to the left. Hitters just can't center his pitches up. They can't get comfortable."
The Rangers are comfortable that they've got Yan and Ortiz on the right path, a former infielder and a batboy-sized southpaw who probably would have gotten far more attention as an amateur if he were half a foot taller. The slider has been a big player for each, but fastball command has taken their game, and their prospects, to another level.
It may turn out that Yan and Ortiz don't make it -- or that they shouldn't be viewed solely as potential right-on-right or left-on-left candidates. Eddie Guardado, Brian Fuentes, Matt Thornton, and George Sherrill established themselves in left-on-left roles but turned into closers. Scott Feldman, a right-hander, turned into a starter.
But as we've seen this year with Texas, a good bullpen needs guys who can come in for a key hitter or two in the sixth or seventh inning. A void there could mean the starter gets left in longer than he should, or that the closer never gets the chance to close things out.
Yan was originally envisioned to be an everyday infielder, and Ortiz has shown an ability to get both lefties and righties out, but if they ultimately end up as the type of relievers who log more appearances than innings pitched, that's going to be just fine. Winning teams win ballgames with guys like that.
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.