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Prospect Retro: Joel Zumaya

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Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya (Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya (Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
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One of the biggest stories yesterday was the horrific injury suffered by Detroit Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya. He's one of my favorite pitchers when healthy, and his development as a prospect was a bit unusual. Let's take a look at his history.

Prospect Retro: Joel Zumaya

Joel Zumaya was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 11th round of the 2002 draft, out of high school in Chula Vista, California. He threw 88-93 in high school, but was considered to be your basic raw arm that might or might not develop, needing substantial polish on his secondary pitches and his command.

The Tigers were pleasantly surprised when he suddenly started throwing 94-96 MPH that summer, resulting in a 1.93 ERA and a 46/11 K/BB in 37 innings in the Gulf Coast League. His curveball and his control were also much better than had been advertised on draft day. I was impressed enough to give him a Grade C+ in my 2003 book, noting that while rookie ball performance is often not predictive, Zumaya's sudden improvement with both velocity and control was very promising.

Promoted to Low-A West Michigan for 2003, Zumaya posted a 2.79 ERA with a 126/38 K/BB in 90 innings, 69 hits allowed. His K/IP and H/IP marks were exceptional, and he took another step forward in velocity, hitting 97-98 MPH. His curveball also continued to improve. Scouts noted that his delivery was "high effort," and he missed a month of pitching time with a sore back, resulting in some concerns about his future health. He also needed a better changeup, but I gave him a Grade B+ in my 2004 book and ranked him the number 31 pitching prospect in the minors.

Zumaya moved up to High-A Lakeland to begin 2004, going 7-7, 4.36 in 20 starts with a 108/58 K/BB in 116 innings, 90 hits allowed, as his command gave him problems for the first time. A late promotion to Double-A Erie went badly, with a 6.30 ERA in four starts, though he struck out 29 guys in 20 innings. He continued to throw 95-98 MPH, but was unable to make progress with his changeup, and showed a lack of stamina in games. On the other hand, scouts loved his attitude and mound presence, and began projecting him as a future closer. I was concerned enough about the command and stamina issues to lower his rating to Grade B- in the 2005 book.

2005 was more successful: 2.77 ERA with a 143/52 K/BB in 107 innings, just 71 hits allowed for Erie, followed by a 2.66 ERA with a 56/24 K/BB in 44 innings for Triple-A Toledo, 30 hits allowed. His walk rates were too high, but the K/IP and H/IP marks were outstanding, reflecting his top-shelf stuff. He polished up his mechanics, resulting in another velocity bump up to 98-100 MPH. However, the sore back cropped up again, and there were still some concerns about his long-term health. Despite those worries, I moved his grade back up to B+, and ranked him as the Number 12 pitching prospect in the 2006 book.

Zumaya had an excellent rookie season for the Tigers in 2006: 1.94 ERA, 97/42 K/BB in 83 innings, 56 hits, quickly established as one of the best setup men in the majors with a fastball clocked as high as an incredible 104 MPH. However, injuries have hampered Joel since his rookie campaign, including a ruptured tendon and a serious shoulder injury that occurred while he was helping his father move boxes to avoid a fire approaching his home in California. Despite his health problems, he still has his fastball, hitting as high as 102 MPH this year....before last night's gruesomely painful injury.

As a prospect, Zumaya was notable for the sudden velocity increase after he signed, and for his outstanding K/IP and H/IP marks. To go from unheralded 11th round pick to one of the top prospects in baseball in less than two years is a rare feat. Obviously we need to see what the exact diagnosis is on his current injury. I wish him the best of luck; he's a great pitcher to watch when things are going well.