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Prospect Retro: Russ Ortiz

Russ Ortiz was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the fourth round of the 1995 draft, from the University of Oklahoma. I saw him pitch in college and was impressed; his fastball could hit 94 MPH, and his breaking ball had a lot of, well, break. His control wasn't especially reliable, which kept him out of the first three rounds, but he had some upside. He posted a 0.52 ERA and 11 saves in his first 25 pro games for Bellingham in the Northwest League, with a 55/13 K/BB in 34 innings. He'd rate a Grade C+ or B- at that point, intriguing due to arm strength but needing to refine his command at higher levels.

Ortiz began 1996 with San Jose in the California League, saving 23 games in 34 contests with a 0.25 ERA and 63 strikeouts in just 36 innings. Promoted to Shreveport in the Double-A Texas League, he saved 13 games in the second half, but control problems (21 walks in 27 innings) boosted his ERA to 4.05. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 1997 book, projecting him as the Giants closer of the future.

The Giants didn't agree with this, and converted him to the starting rotation in 1997. He did OK but struggled with his control, posting a 4.13 ERA in 12 starts for Shreveport, then a 5.51 ERA in 14 starts for Triple-A Phoenix. His strikeout rate dropped substantially, and he didn't change speeds well, having problems developing his changeup. I lowered his grade to B- in the 1998 book. At the time there were rumors that the Giants would move him back to the bullpen.

Ortiz turned things around very quickly in 1998, showing improved control and a better changeup to go with his fastball and breaking ball. Still a starter, he posted a 1.60 ERA in 10 starts for Triple-A Phoenix, then went 4-4, 4.99 in 22 games, 13 starts for the Giants. He went 18-9 for the Giants in 33 starts in 1999, solidifying himself in a starting role.

Ortiz was erratic but occasionally excellent as a starter 1999 through 2004. His control was always a problem, as he walked 100 guys four different seasons. He started to fade in 2004, but still won 15 games for the Braves. This tricked the Diamondbacks into signing him as a free agent. He was terrible last year, even worse this year, and was just released.

His career profile is unusual. Most of the time you see minor league starters converted into closers, not the other way around. Although he had success in the rotation, winning more than 100 games, I wonder if he would have been better off in relief. As it is, he looks like he is washed up at age 32. Is he going strong as a closer in an alternate universe somewhere?

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