Underdogs are fun to follow and few major league players are as underdogish as Milwaukee Brewers reliever Michael Blazek, who has gone from obscure Cardinals farmhand and former 35th round pick to success in the Brew Crew relief corps.
Blazek was a 35th round pick back in 2007 out of high school in Las Vegas. The draft slot was a little misleading: he was expected to go to college at the University of Nevada and play shortstop, but the Cardinals liked him as a pitcher and convinced him to sign. He could have gone several rounds higher under different circumstances, although he was unlikely to be a premium choice since most saw him as an infielder who needed to go to college.
He had some fits and starts in short-season ball but took a step forward in the Midwest League in 2010, posting a 2.71 ERA with a 104/31 K/BB in 103 innings as both a starter and reliever. He jumped to the Double-A Texas League in 2011 and struggled at times as a full-time starter (5.45 ERA in 134 innings) but did show good arm strength. He switched back to bullpen work in 2012 but despite decent performance in the upper minors he was surplus to Cardinal needs in 2013 and was traded to the Brewers for John Axford.
Here he is in the majors with a 1.69 ERA in 37 innings, 32/12 K/BB and just 22 hits allowed.
Blazek's profile is somewhat unusual for a reliever: he actually has four usable pitches, including a 93-97 MPH fastball, a slider in the 80s, a change-up in the low 80s, and a curve in the 70s. That's a starter's arsenal but command of his secondary pitches is inconsistent and for most of his career he seemed more effective in relief, or at least showed better command in that role. Interestingly that wasn't true last year in Triple-A: he made 17 starts for Nashville last year with a 3.62 ERA and 62/29 K/BB in 77 innings but stood with a 5.68, 26/11 with 39 hits in 25 bullpen innings.
Right now he looks good in the bullpen although there were rumors earlier this week that he could make a start. That's plausible at some point but even if he stays in the bullpen, it is useful to have a middle man that you can stretch out a bit.
You have to root for the 35th rounders.