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Top closers grew up as starters in minor leagues

Last year, all eight major-league playoff teams had signature closers, one relief pitcher with at least 25 saves.

And with the exception of then-Angels ace Troy Percival, all of those closers were predominantly starting pitchers in their minor-league careers.

Yankees legend Mariano Rivera was a starter almost exclusively after his stateside debut in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, and he started more than he relieved in his first big-league season in 1995. Red Sox playoff hero Keith Foulke made just two relief appearances in the minor leagues – and 72 starts. He has made eight starts since coming to the big leagues with the Giants, none since 1997.

Another former Giants farmhand, Twins closer Joe Nathan, started his pro career as an infielder. But when the Giants moved him to the mound, they put him in the rotation, and 29 of his first 39 big-league games came as a starter.

Astros closer Brad Lidge broke down so frequently in college and in the minor leagues as a starter (42 starts in 52 minor-league appearances), Houston had to move him to the bullpen to keep him healthy. In his first try as a closer last year, he set a National League record for strikeouts by a reliever.

LA's Eric Gagne, St. Louis' Jason Isringhausen and John Smoltz (now back in Atlanta's rotation) ranged from interesting to successful to Cy Young as starters before becoming three of the NL's top firemen.

They stand as evidence that championship closers don't have to be incubated in minor-league bullpens. In fact, they're the rule rather than the exception. The majority of great relievers today come from two streams of talent: former starters and converted position players such as Percival and Padres relief ace Trevor Hoffman.

That doesn't necessarily bode well for relievers in the minor leagues, but it doesn't mean there aren't prospects among their ranks. Here's a look at some of the best who emerged in 2004 and where they are in 2005.

The Converts
Percival was a junior-college catcher and is now the patron saint of hitter-to-pitcher conversions, with 316 career saves and a World Series championship ring for good measure. Unlike Percival, several of the top hitter-to-pitcher converts weren't catchers in their previous lives.

The breakout performers among the converts in 2004 were right-handers Chad Orvella of the Devil Rays and Chris Resop of the Marlins. Orvella had only 12 saves during the season between low-Class A Charleston, Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. But he has excellent command of a fastball that reaches 97 mph, solid secondary stuff (above-average changeup, average slider) and the aggressiveness to go to the back of a big-league bullpen and be effective.

The Devil Rays drafted the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Orvella in the 13th round in 2003 after area scout Hank King (now with the Padres) saw him pitch in a relief role at North Carolina State, where Orvella was normally the starting shortstop. Orvella had pitched in high school and at Columbia Basin (Wash.) JC, so he wasn't new to the mound. But he was a shortstop first for the Wolfpack, hitting .320 in two seasons.

As a junior college coach, King had seen Orvella in high school and always knew he had athletic ability and a strong arm. But even King didn't know how good Orvella would be, which in 2004 was good enough for a 1.70 ERA and 117-10 strikeout-walk ratio in 74 innings spread over three levels.

"He's got a strong body and a great feel for his body, and he's been like that since I've known him, when he was 16," King said. "But nobody thought he would be in Triple-A [when he had] only been a full-time pitcher for 14 months."

Orvella said he thought the Rays would give him a chance to make or break as a hitter before moving him to the mound. He even took a shipment of new bats with him when he reported to short-season Hudson Valley after the draft.

"When I got there, they said, 'OK, you're done.' So since then, I've been a pitcher," Orvella said.

Orvella spent some time in big-league camp, pitching two shutout innings, but he doesn't have to be protected on the 40-man roster yet, so he was sent back to Double-A Montgomery.

He'll have to compete with Resop for the title of best converted closer in the Southern League. Resop, a two-way player in high school, has been a pitcher for about the same length of time, agreeing in July 2003 to pitch after hitting .193 in 269 pro at-bats. The 21-year-old has a projectable pitcher's body at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and he has the athletic ability to put his fastball where he wants it.

As a hitter, his best tool was raw power, though he failed to translate it from batting practice to games. As a pitcher, power remains Resop's forte, as he struck out 71 in 43 innings last season at low-Class A Greensboro and gave up just one homer in his first full season as a pitcher. Now, he's closing for the Marlins' most important minor-league team, Double-A Carolina, with a prospect-laden rotation featuring top prospects such as lefty Scott Olsen and righties Yorman Bazardo, Josh Johnson and Logan Kensing.

"The last home stand we had, he topped out at 98 mph," then-Greensboro manager Steve Phillips said. "It's got velocity, and it's got late life. It looks like it hops at the end. ... [His curveball is] becoming a pretty good pitch too, and it's only going to get better if he throws it more."

Others to watch: Jeremy Harts, LHP, Pirates; Danny Rueckel, RHP, Nationals; Jose Diaz, RHP, Devil Rays; Jeremy Accardo, RHP, Giants.

Do The Numbers Lie?
All of the 2004 playoff closers can be termed strikeout pitchers; most do it with power, while Foulke relies on a plus-plus changeup. The ability to get a key strikeout is the separator between top closers and their setup men.

Their respective organizations hope Blue Jays right-hander Brandon League and Rockies right-hander Ryan Speier can be closers, even though their track records and backgrounds present interesting obstacles.

League, who hit triple digits on the stadium radar gun during the Eastern League All-Star Game, has some of the minors' best stuff, but without the dominant results to prove it. The 2001 second-round pick, who features a low three-quarters arm angle, has a respectable 3.42 career ERA in 365 innings, allowing just 342 hits (.250 average against). His high-90s gas isn't his only weapon.

"He's got tremendous life on his two-seam fastball," said Rick Adair, who had League during his stint as pitching coach of a talented staff at Double-A New Hampshire in 2004. "There are some nights when he has three plus pitches and average command of them. His change is better, and his slider is sometimes a plus pitch. He's a pleasure to watch."

Yet League had just 295 strikeouts in his career entering 2005; 90 came in 104 innings in '04. His strikeout rate actually increased late in the season after a move back into the rotation, as the Blue Jays worked to get him more innings to speed his development. If his command continues to improve, Jays officials think the strikeouts will come. League earned a big-league bullpen spot this spring with a strong performance but wasn't ready yet, and he's back at Triple-A Syracuse for more seasoning.

Speier doesn't fit a closer's profile for several reasons. Signed as a nondrafted free agent after impressing scouts in the Cape Cod League, he's already 25 and finished last year in the Double-A Texas League. He's also a sidearmer, the type of pitcher typically seen as a gimmick guy best used in a setup role.

But while right-handed sidearm pitchers usually have trouble with left-handed hitters, Speier has not during his two-year run of dominance with the Rockies. While posting a combined 1.80 ERA over 120 innings at high-Class A Visalia and Double-A Tulsa, Speier limited left-handed hitters to a .209 average and just three home runs in 177 at-bats. Right-handed hitters fared slightly worse at .177 with two homers.

Speier, who was moved to his sidearm delivery during a college tour of the Valley League, neutralizes lefties with a good changeup that plays off his fastball. He throws harder than the average sidearmer, touching 91-92 mph with late life down in the zone, and adds a solid average slider.

Despite it all, most scouts who saw Speier as a minor leaguer project him more as a setup man than as a closer. He's in that role now but has shocked many scouts by reaching the big leagues already, skipping Triple-A.

Others to watch: Eduardo Sierra, RHP, Yankees; Jermaine Van Buren, RHP, Cubs; Brad Baker, RHP, Padres.

The One And Only
The Athletics famously like safe bets in the draft, and in 2004 no one fit the bill better than University of Texas right-hander Huston Street. Predicted to be one of the first players from that draft to reach the majors, he coolly made the roster out of spring training – no pressure.

How much more pressure can he face? The pressure of living up to the legend of his father, James, a Cotton Bowl-winning quarterback at Texas who also was the baseball team's No. 1 pitcher, ahead of Burt Hooten as the No. 2. The pressure of saving four straight games as a freshman to help Texas win the 2002 College World Series?

Or how about the pressure of pitching 8-2/3 innings of scoreless relief for Team USA in 2003 against a team of Mexican professionals in the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic? Street feeds on pressure – his 94th and final pitch against Mexico was 94 mph.

"His stuff last summer was big-league stuff," said a scout who saw him for Team USA and again in the 2004 CWS. "His fastball was harder than he ever had thrown it, his slider was wicked and he put every pitch where he wanted. He was a little off [last spring], not quite there. The slider was good in Omaha, but the fastball command and velocity were not the same. But he wasn't far off."

The A's pushed Street all the way to Triple-A in his first pro season after drafting him 40th overall in June. While Octavio Dotel ameliorated many of the A's bullpen problems late in the 2004 season, Street and fellow farmhand Jairo Garcia are to provide low-cost reinforcements, if not replacements.

And if he's needed, Street will be ready to handle the pressure of closing and whatever other pressure he might face. It's what he has done his whole life.