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Prospect Retro: Carl Pavano

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Prospect Retro: Carl Pavano

Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retro on veteran starting pitcher Carl Pavano, who was one of the best prospects in baseball 15 years ago.

Carl Pavano was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 13th round of the 1994 draft, out of high school in Southington, Connecticut. He performed excellently in rookie ball, posting a 1.84 ERA with a 47/7 K/BB in 44 innings for the GCL Red Sox, showing superb command. I was working as Bill James' office assistant back then and wasn't writing a prospect book, but a similar guy nowadays, a cold-weather prep arm with decent stuff and excellent control in rookie ball would get a Grade C+ grade from me.

Pavano moved up to the Midwest League for 1995, posting a 3.44 ERA and a 138/52 K/BB in 141 innings for Michigan, with 118 hits allowed. His fastball was into the  low 90s now, and he also showed a good breaking ball and improving changeup. His component ratios were all better than context, and I gave him a Grade B- in my first book, the 1996 STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook, noting that Pavano had a "good mix of performance, youth, and talent, and should be watched."

After an excellent spring training, Pavano jumped up to Double-A in 1996 at the age of 20, going 16-5, 2.63 with a 146/47 K/BB in 185 innings, 154 hits allowed. That's a lot of innings for a 20 year old, but there was less attention paid to pitch counts and workload 14 years ago. Pavano's statistical performance was excellent, and scouts gave his slider and changeup above average marks, also liking his solid command of his 90-92 MPH fastball. He was rated the Number Five prospect in the Eastern League by Baseball America, behind Vlad Guerrero, Scott Rolen, Jamey Wright, and Luis Castillo. I was highly impressed with him, giving him a Grade B+ and ranking him as the Number Four pitching prospect in baseball.

1997 got off to a slow start; he missed the first few weeks of the season with biceps tendinitis. Once he took the mound in May, he continued rolling along at Triple-A Pawtucket in 1997, going 11-6, 3.12 with a 147/34 K/BB in 162 innings, 148 hits. His fastball was up to 94 MPH, he developed a good curve to go with his slider, and his changeup continued to improve. He was sent over the border to Montreal in the Pedro Martinez trade, and was expected to be the young ace of the Expos staff for 1998. I gave him a Grade A- and rated him as the Number One pitching prospect in baseball entering '98, though I didn't give him a straight A due to concerns about his minor league workload and resultant injury risk.

Pavano had a decent rookie year for the Expos (4.21 ERA, 83/43 K/BB in 135 innings, 130 hits), but his pitching time was limited to 23 starts by injuries. Indeed, continued shoulder and elbow problems plagued him for years. He wasn't a bad pitcher when not in pain; indeed, he was quite good in 15 starts for the Expos in 2000 (3.06 ERA, 64/34 K/BB in 97 innings), but he just couldn't stay healthy, and he lost velocity on his fastball. His arm finally stabilized enough for him to make 32 starts for the Florida Marlins in 2003 and 31 more in 2004, going 18-8, 3.00 in the latter season and earning a big free agent contact with the Yankees for 2005.

As you know, this was one of the biggest contract busts in history; Pavano's entire New York career was dominated by injuries (including Tommy John surgery in 2007) and ineffective pitching when he did take the mound. His mental toughness was questioned and he became unpopular in the clubhouse. Getting out of New York and over to Cleveland in 2009 was a relief to everyone involved.

He didn't pitch much better in Cleveland, but a trade to Minnesota last summer revived his career. He's now made 31 starts for the Twins, going 16-10, 3.89 with a 136/34 K/BB ratio in 208 innings, 206 hits allowed, thriving in the lower-pressure media environment and with a good team behind him that doesn't expect him to be something he's not.

Overall, Pavano has been an average pitcher: 4.35 ERA, ERA+ of 98 in 1417 innings, 98-84 record, 916/358 K/BB ratio. He's been awful when struggling with injuries, but during his relatively healthy seasons (1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010) he's actually been quite effective, if not quite the genuine ace originally envisioned.

There is little doubt in my mind that Pavano would have had a much more successful career if he'd avoided injuries, though you can say that about a lot of pitchers. Any pitcher can get hurt, and drawing a direct line of causality is difficult, but it is hard not to think that Pavano's heavy workload in the Red Sox minor league system in 1996 and 1997 contributed to his problems.