J.J. Putz Prospect Retro
J.J. Putz was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the sixth round in 1999, from the University of Michigan. A senior, he was somewhat erratic in college but impressed scouts with his arm strength, although it was clear he'd have to improve his command in pro ball. Assigned to the Northwest League after signing, he posted a 4.84 ERA in 22 innings for Everett, with a 17/11 K/BB ratio and 23 hits allowed: mediocre numbers in a small sample size. I'd go with Grade C at that stage: live arm, might develop, might not.
Putz moved up to the Midwest League in 2000, going 12-6, 3.15 in 25 starts for Wisconsin, with a 105/63 K/BB in 143 innings. His K/BB and K/IP ratios were below average....and at age 23, in the Midwest League, that wasn't a good sign. He showed off a strong fastball, but he didn't change speeds well and his control was erratic. I gave him a Grade C in the '01 book.
An impressive spring camp earned Putz a promotion to Double-A in '01, skipping high-level A entirely. He went 7-9, 3.83 in 26 starts for San Antonio, with a 135/59 K/BB in 148 innings. An improved breaking ball boosted his strikeout rate despite the higher level of competition. I increased his grade to C+ in the '02 book, noting the improvement in his ratios....he was making progress.
Putz returned to Double-A in '02, going just 3-10 but with a 3.64 ERA in 15 starts due to poor run support. Promoted to Triple-A, he went 2-4, 3.83 in nine starts for Tacoma. His combined K/BB ratio was 99/49 in 138 innings. His slider continued to improve, but he was still having trouble with his changeup. I moved him back down to Grade C in the '03 book, basically because he was already 26 years old and barely established in Triple-A.
The Mariners converted Putz to the bullpen in 2003, and he had a fine year for Tacoma, posting a 2.51 ERA with 11 saves and a 60/34 K/BB in 86 innings. He made his major league debut that year, getting into three games with Seattle. The switch to relief boosted his fastball velocity another 1-3 MPH, and without having to worry about a changeup his breaking ball seemed better as well. I gave him a C+ in the '04 book and wrote that he "should have a career as a productive middle reliever."
That's what he did in '04 and '05, then last year he turned in a stellar season as a closer, thanks to dramatically improved command. This wasn't really predictable given his minor league record: his K/BB and K/IP were much, much better last year than anything he ever did in the minors.
Overall this is an example of a guy with good arm strength who made adjustments and thrived when converted to a role that matched his talents.