In five June starts, former Milwaukee ace Yovani Gallardo compiled a stellar 0.54 ERA with nine walks and 25 strikeouts for the Texas Rangers. While depressed Brewers fans might view Gallardo’s month-long dominance as another dash of salt in this festering wound of a 2015 season, optimistic and forward-looking fans, buoyed by a recent stretch of winning baseball, might prefer instead to recall that the franchise-altering facelift many of them hope to see accomplished by the July 31 trade deadline actually began six months ago with Gallardo himself.
On January 19, 2015, Milwaukee dealt Gallardo to Texas for three prospects: shortstop Luis Sardinas, reliever Corey Knebel, and right-hander Marcos Diplan. Both Sardinas, a strong defender who could develop into a useful utility infielder, and Knebel, a hard-throwing righty with back-of-the-bullpen potential, have split time this season between Milwaukee and Triple-A Colorado Springs. One day the Brewers will return to playoff contention, and there is no reason to think that Sardinas, 22, and Knebel, 23, cannot be part of that revival. For the Gallardo deal to pay huge dividends, however, 18-year-old starter Marcos Diplan must fulfill his enormous potential.
When BP Milwaukee’s Derek Harvey profiled Diplan for Brew Crew Ball in January, fans knew little about the young right-hander their club had acquired. Born September 18, 1996, in Santiago de los Caballo, Dominican Republic, Diplan signed with the Rangers on July 2, 2013 for $1.3 million. As a 16-year-old, he was widely regarded as the top pitching prospect in the 2013 international class. At 6-feet tall and 160 pounds, with room to grow and a fastball that touched 95, Diplan drew lofty comparisons to another shorter-than-average Dominican right-hander named Pedro Martinez. (Brewers fans can wistfully dream on that comp for a few years.) In 2014, Diplan compiled a 7-2 record and 1.54 ERA in 13 starts with the Rangers’ DSL team, racking up 57 strikeouts in 64.1 innings. He also yielded 36 walks, which translates to a bloated 5.04 BB/9 ratio — an eye-popping number in light of his 1.06 WHIP. DSL batters, it seems, drew free passes from Diplan rather than try to hit him.
Following the trade, Diplan reported to extended spring training, where the Brewers got a much closer look at their young pitcher. Club officials liked what they saw, for Diplan skipped the Arizona Rookie League and received an aggressive assignment to Helena, Milwaukee’s short-season affiliate in the Pioneer League. Reid Nichols, Director of Player Development for the Brewers, offered both a positive assessment of Diplan and a simple goal for the youngster. “He has a big arm,” Nichols told me, “but he just needs some time. For now, he needs to learn to pitch down” in the strike zone.
In the fifth inning of his second start with Helena, a June 24 game at Missoula, Diplan encountered some adversity that called for reinforcement of that simple message. With the Brewers leading 2-0, Diplan surrendered a pair of solo home runs.
“He reacted like you’d expect from a young pitcher,” Helena manager Tony Diggs told me. “He had that look on his face like ‘What am I doing wrong?’” Pitching coach Rolando Valles made a trip to the mound. “They had a quick conversation,” Diggs recalled. “Rolando reminded him to work back down in the zone, and after that he kept the ball down.”
Diplan escaped the fifth and made it through seven innings. His final line was 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 7 K. Additionally, seven outs came via the ground ball. This constituted an improvement over his first start on June 19, also against Missoula, when he struck out eight and got the win, but lasted only five innings — in part because he walked four and induced only three groundouts. It is a very small sample, but one can hope that Diplan’s early results, bolstered by a consistent, organizational approach to his development — pitch down – auger well for his future as a starter.
In a sport whose educators are charged with turning teenagers into professionals, a player’s “makeup” — a term that encompasses a variety of intangibles — becomes part of his scouting report. According to his manager, Diplan is “a good kid, grounded, and very coachable.” This impression stems not only from his brief time in Helena but from extended spring training, where Diggs also had a chance to spend time with Diplan.
Diggs added that as the youngster worked to improve his mechanics he also was developing an understanding of how to pitch. “There’s no panic,” Diggs said of Diplan. “I saw in extended spring that he keeps his poise even when he doesn’t have his great stuff. He goes through the same routine, pitches at the same tempo.” Like pitch location, poise and tempo helped Diplan move past those two home runs against Missoula and finish seven strong innings.
To succeed as a starter in the majors, Diplan will need not only excellent mechanics and makeup but a starter’s repertoire. “He has three pitches,” Diggs told me, “and he commands two of them.” The early results suggest what Diggs confirmed: Diplan has great command of his fastball and curve, but that third pitch — in this case the changeup — is where the rubber meets the road for a starter. “He projects well,” Diggs said. “I think he’s going to be a major-league starter.” Still, when asked about Diplan’s weaknesses, Diggs was quick to note that the changeup must get better. There’s time for that, of course.
Indeed, his exceptional talent notwithstanding, Diplan’s biggest advantage might be time itself. At 18, he is the third-youngest pitcher in the Pioneer League. Assuming he continues to develop, he should receive his first taste of full-season ball in 2016. From there, it is not unreasonable to think that he might get a late-season callup as early as 2018, or that he could win a rotation spot by 2019 or 2020.
At that point, Brewers fans would have every reason to hope that their young pitcher, acquired as a teenager, mentored and developed with a consistent approach through every level of the organization, will spend the next decade of his career helping them forget about 2015.