Friday, February 17, 2012

Top priority

Of all the tasks Darren Balsley plans for his Padres pitchers this spring training, first on the list concerns a mysterious righty who a) owns a 5.01 ERA over the last three years, b) underwent Tommy John surgery three summers ago, c) tested positive for a performance enhancing drug two springs ago, yet d) earned All-Star recognition before a, b and c dumped ice water on his career.

Edinson Volquez, welcome to Peoria, where, along with the Arizona sun, your new coach's spotlight will shine on you starting on Sunday when camp opens.

"The No. 1 thing we want to do is get Volquez back on track," Balsley told this blog today, by phone from the team's clubhouse in Peoria. "He is going to be a big key in our rotation. We're losing (Mat) Latos, but Volquez is capable. He's a much better pitcher than he's shown. If he gets back to normal, then we have a legit guy. He's been an ace at times."

If Volquez, 28, is to pitch nearly as well for the Padres as he did for the Reds four seasons ago, when he went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and struck out 9.5 hitters per nine innings, the turnaround will start on Peoria's bullpen mounds.

Balsley expects Volquez to work up a cleaner delivery and better accuracy with his fastball, and not because the new coach thinks himself smarter than Bryan Price, the pitching coach with the Reds, who two months ago swapped Volquez and three prospects for Latos.

"Bryan Price is one of the best pitching coaches in baseball," said Balsley, who is in his 10th year on the job. "Sometimes, a change of scenery helps."

The status quo isn't working for Volquez, who will say adios to the major leagues sooner than he'd like if he continues to walk 5.4 hitters per nine innings, his rate over the last three years.

Balsley, having studied the 6-foot, 225-pounder's delivery, already has specific plans to "clean up a few things mechanically."

Between the ears, however, lies the novel part of the imminent retooling.

Balsley suspects that Volquez may have suffered from too much of a good thing: a fastball that dances the salsa. Balsley will insist that Volquez target the mitt, rather than assume the fastball's action alone will create strikes and swings at balls.

"His stuff is so good, I don't think he tries to spot the ball," Balsley said.

If the new routine is ingrained six weeks from now, Volquez will see leather before he throws every fastball in the bullpen or in games. He may not become pinpoint with his accuracy, but his chances for success will improve if he walks 4.3 per nine innings (his average in his All-Star season) or 3.4 (his rate over 678 innings in the minor leagues).

"Nobody's ever going to be perfect with location of a fastball," Balsley said. "It's a difficult goal. But I want him to leave camp knowing he can throw a fastball when and where he wants to."

Phase Two of this reclamation project comes when Volquez moves into his new major league home, and grins like the giddy, reality-show people whose shack was built into a palace.

At Petco National Park, walking 5.4 hitters per nine innings would be a crime. The moment a blasted fastball lands in an outfielder's glove, Volzquez will know he's not in Cincinnati's shoebox anymore.

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