Prospect Retro: Jon Rauch
Minnesota Twins right-hander Jon Rauch has performed admirably as substitute closer for the injured Joe Nathan this year. He's a good subject for a Prospect Retro, as a pitcher who was once a top prospect, was forgotten for awhile, then came back strongly to establish himself as a valued reliever.
Jon Rauch was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the third round of the 1999 draft, out of Morehead State University. He intrigued scouts with his intimidating 6-11 size and a fastball that could hit the mid-90s, but his draft stock was hampered after a bout with viral meningitis that spring cost him 50 pounds of weight and eight MPH off his fastball. He posted a 4.45 ERA in 57 innings in the Appalachian League after signing, but had an impressive 66/16 K/BB ratio. Although his velocity was inconsistent during his first pro summer, his command was unusually good for such a tall pitcher, and scouts gave his curveball and slider positive marks. I did not put him in the 2000 book due to space limitations (I only wrote comments for about 600 players per book back then), but would have given him a Grade C+ if I had, probably with a "sleeper alert" tag.
Rauch began 2000 with Winston-Salem in the Carolina League, going 11-3, 2.86 with a 124/33 K/BB in 110 innings. Promoted to Double-A for August, he was even better at Birmingham with a 5-1, 2.25 record and a 63/16 K/BB in 56 innings. His K/IP and K/BB marks were outstanding, and he got all of his pre-virus velocity back, working at a consistent 92-95 MPH. His curve and slider continued to draw good reviews, although scouts said he needed to improve his changeup. I was extremely impressed with him, giving Rauch a rate Grade A rating in the 2001 book, and ranking him as the Number Four pitching prospect in baseball.
2001 was not the expected triumph. He got off to a slow start for Triple-A Charlotte, going 1-3, 5.79, throwing just 88-90 MPH. He was shut down with a sore shoulder, and examination revealed damage to his labrum and rotator cuff. He had surgery to repair the injury, and rehabbed well enough that he was expected to take the mound early in 2002. I gave him a Grade B in the '02 book, noting that he could still be a really good pitcher but that we needed to see how the recovery went.
Rauch looked good in spring training of 2002, good enough that the White Sox decided to skip another dose of Triple-A and brought him north for the major league rotation in April. I described this move as "incredibly boneheaded," and he didn't last long, posting 6.59 ERA in six starts with a 19/14 K/BB in 29 innings, then getting sent back to Triple-A. He was mediocre at Charlotte, going 7-8, 4.28 with a 97/42 K/BB in 109 innings. His velocity was down compared to pre-injury, just 88-92 MPH, and his curveball and slider regressed. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2003 book.
Rauch spent all of 2003 in Triple-A, going 7-1, 4.12 in 23 starts with a 94/35 K/BB in 125 innings, allowing 16 homers. The K/BB ratio wasn't bad, but in general his pitches just didn't have quite as much oomph behind him as they did before he got hurt and he was no longer mentioned as a future rotation anchor. I gave him a Grade C in the 2004 book, and noted that he could use a change of scenery.
He began 2004 back at Charlotte and pitched well (3.11 ERA, 61/25 K/BB in 72 innings), then was traded to the Montreal Expos for Carl Everett. He pitched 23 innings for the Expos down the stretch, posting a 1.54 ERA with a an 18/7 K/BB and exceeding rookie qualifications. He split '05 between Triple-A and Washington, then moved full time into the Nationals pen in '06, emerging as a very effective reliever. He saved 17 games in 2008 with the Nats, then was traded to Arizona where he was less effective. As you know, the Twins got him in a stretch run trade last year, then moved him to the closer role when Nathan went down this spring.
In his career, including this year, Rauch has a 33-27 record, 44 saves, a 3.70 ERA with a 359/136 K/BB in 443 innings, and an ERA + of 118.
Aside from the hiccup in Arizona in the second half of ‘09, he's been consistently above average, excellent at times, basically in keeping with what we expected early in his career before he got hurt. He never regained all of the velocity he lost due to the shoulder problem, working at 89-93 now, but his command, combined with a quality slider, curveball, and occasional changeup, has been good enough to compensate.