Mariners may have unearthed gem in pitcher Mauricio Robles
Mauricio Robles, a left-handed starter whose fastball hits 97 mph and changeup keeps hitters lunging helplessly, wasn't even a pitcher when the Venezuelan signed to play baseball a few years ago.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — A guy who watches young Mauricio Robles light up catchers' mitts here daily doesn't hesitate when asked how a 5-foot-10 pitcher can generate so much fastball heat.
Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair quickly points to the sky and quips something about God-given talent. But Mariners fans hoping to one day see Robles pitch at Safeco Field should also thank the talent evaluators for the Detroit Tigers.
That's because Robles, a left-handed starter whose fastball hits 97 mph and changeup keeps hitters lunging helplessly, wasn't even a pitcher when Detroit signed the Venezuelan as a teenage center fielder a few years back. The minor-leaguer acquired by Seattle in last summer's Jarrod Washburn trade assumed he'd continue playing the outfield until the Tigers got one look at his live arm.
"I'd tried to pitch once when I was younger and I didn't really like it and wanted to play in the outfield," said Robles, who turns 21 on March 5. "But the Tigers saw my arm and told me they thought I could be a very good pitcher if I worked at it. So, that's what I did."
Robles spent hours every day in Venezuela tutoring with Tigers mound instructor Jorge Cordova, learning how to throw various pitches and mix them in during games. It didn't take long for Robles to make folks forget he was once an outfielder.
After two years in the Venezuelan Summer League, he was turned loose on Class A Midwest hitters in the U.S. in 2008 and has averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings ever since
"It's funny because when I'm on the mound, I'm not trying to strike anyone out," Robles said. "I'm trying to keep all of my pitches down low. If I get a ground ball for an out, that's all I care about."
The most lethal part of his game isn't even his fastball, which Robles says topped out at 97 mph last season while hovering around 94 mph. Instead, it's an above average changeup that looks just like a fastball coming out of his hands and has hitters swinging before it's anywhere near the plate.
There's been talk since the Washburn deal that Robles, and not the other pitcher Seattle acquired, major-league left-hander Luke French, was the guy Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was after all along. The Tigers were said to have thought Robles was undersized, though there were also comparisons to Braves starter Jair Jurrjens, another diminutive pitcher Detroit gave up on.
Robles promptly went 3-2 with a 2.78 earned-run average in six starts for Seattle's Class A High Desert team, striking out 34 batters in 32-1/3 innings. In total, he breezed through two levels of Class A ball last year, making 24 starts and striking out 144 batters in 123-2/3 innings.
Robles headed back to Venezuela after that for a winter ball stint as a relief pitcher.
"He was dominating everybody," said Guillermo Quiroz, a onetime major-leaguer and current Mariners minor-league catcher, who played against Robles in winter ball. "He was so good that they had to stop using him. He was only supposed to throw about 20 innings the whole time he was down there and he went through that in two weeks. The coach kept using him all the time."
Mike Sweeney took one look at a Robles changeup during live batting practice and quickly sat him down for a chat.
"I told him he had the stuff to get major-league hitters out right now," Sweeney said. "I told him that if he kept working hard and worked at getting better every day, he would make it to the major leagues. He had tears in his eyes."
Robles confirms that he was indeed misty-eyed to hear the praise.
"That meant so much to me to hear that," he said.
Robles actually hails from Felix Hernandez's neighborhood in the Venezuelan city of Valencia. They didn't know each other, but Robles' mother worked next to a baseball field where Hernandez often trains and a couple of years ago walked over and told him her son also pitched professionally.
After Robles was acquired from Detroit, his Class A team stopped by Angel Stadium in Anaheim to watch batting practice before the Mariners played there. Hernandez sought Robles out, remembering the talk with his mother.
"He's got real good stuff," said Hernandez, who throws in the same group as Robles down here. "Really good."
Mariners pitching coach Adair agrees, saying Robles has a "plus" changeup that could take him places.
"He's a very, very interesting player," Adair said. "Obviously, the talent is there. But the maturity he shows for such a young guy is also impressive. It's just a matter of getting innings, getting more consistent and learning the preparation that goes into being a big-league pitcher."
And as the long-forgotten outfielder has already shown, he's a quick study.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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