Alex Torres: The Next Jake McGee for the Tampa Bay Rays?
By Robbie Knopf
It was a foregone conclusion that all hope was lost for Alex Torres. Just one year after a season that saw him lead the Triple-A International League in strikeouts and finish with a strong showing in the major leagues in September, Torres had completely and utterly fallen apart. In 26 appearances, 14 starts, with the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate, the Durham Bulls, Torres had struck out 91 batters in 69 innings, 11.2 per 9, but that was the only good news. His ERA was a ghastly 7.30 as he walked a nearly incomprehensible 8.2 batters per 9 innings and he also allowed a 0.8 HR/9 as hitters were content to just take walk after walk and then capitalize when he finally threw them a strike. His pure stuff was still impressive, but what did it matter if he couldn’t throw a strike if his life depended on it? Torres was so bad that the Rays sent him all the way down to their Rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate to sort himself out. But it was there that everything began to change.
From July 29th to August 11th of 2012, Alex Torres didn’t pitch in a single game, instead spending the entire time working with Rays minor league pitching coordinator Marty DeMerritt to try to figure out what in the world had happened to him and how to fix it. It was DeMerritt’s prerogative to completely overhaul Torres’ delivery. Torres had always been a pitcher with a very deceptive delivery as he threw across his body and also moved his head late in his delivery, throwing hitters off further. The problem was that Torres’ motion and extraneous movement caused his arm slot to fluctuate and his ability to throw strikes to come and go without a moment’s notice. That was especially frustrating because Torres didn’t even need the deception because hitters couldn’t hit his pitches anyway when he was locked in. What DeMerritt did was to eliminate the head nod and get rid of a lot of the moving parts in the delivery in an attempt to simplify it and keep Torres from having as many bouts of wildness. As it turned out, that has worked to perfection.
After four appearances for the GCL Rays, Torres returned to Durham, making a relief appearance before finally returning to the Bulls’ rotation for one last start on September 1st. It could not have gone any better as Torres went 5.2 innings allowing no runs on 3 hits, striking out 10 while walking just 1. Torres’ results since have been much of the same. In Winter Ball in the Venezuelan League, Torres’ ERA was a mediocre 4.48 in 60.1 innings pitched, but he managed a 12.8 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9, showing vast improvement. Then in spring training for the Rays, Torres continued to attract attention as he went 4.2 innings allowing just 1 run on 5 hits, striking out 6 while walking none. And now, through two starts at Durham to begin 2013, Torres has continued to stay locked in, going 11 shutout innings allowing just 4 hits, striking out 11 while walking none. Torres is 25 and his prospect luster is not nearly what it had once been. Even as we watch him succeed, we can’t get it out of the back of our minds that he could fall apart at any moment and never get back. All that being said, though, the more Torres dominates, the more it becomes apparent that he could be an impact pitcher for the Rays as soon as this season.
Torres’ fastball ranges from the 91-95 MPH range and for the longest time, how it moved varied wildly within games and even within at-bats and none of that was within Torres’ control. At any given time, it showed any combination of run towards right-handed batters, great sink, and late cutting action, and Torres simply had no idea where it was going not knowing which one it would be. That tendency has not completely gone away, but Torres’ fastball more often tails towards right-handed batters with sharp late bite down in the zone. It has always moved a ton, but now that Torres can anticipate how it will move, he can throw it for strikes on a much more consistent basis.
Torres’ secondary pitches are a slider and a changeup. The slider ranges from the low-to-mid-80’s with dynamic late break, and now that Torres is doing a better job selling it from the arm slot of his fastball, he’s been able to get hitters to chase it out of the zone much more often. Torres’ breaking ball has gone back and forth from being a slider and a curveball, but it’s more of a true, hard slider now and hitters from both sides have a hard time making contact with it when Torres can make it look like a strike. His changeup is a solid third pitch with good arm action and nice late sink that mirrors the movement on his fastball. It’s not really a swing-and-miss offering, but he throws it for strikes and he can use it to keep hitters off-balance and force weak contact.
Torres has one plus pitch in his fastball, one that flashes plus quite a bit in his breaking ball, and an average offering in his changeup, and with that repertoire he has a chance to be a big league third starter with inconsistency but also flashes of dominance as long as he can keep throwing strikes. Even all the success Torres has experienced, the odds of him reaching that upside still seem pretty low. But that doesn’t mean that Torres can’t be a valuable pitcher at the major league level for the Rays.
Lefty Jake McGee was a top pitching prospect for years in the Rays system, but he lost control of his mid-90’s fastball and breaking ball at Double-A in 2008 as he slipped to a 7.5 K/9 and a 4.3 BB/9, and his problems escalated the following season as he was forced to undergo Tommy John Surgery. But after he returned, the Rays moved him to the bullpen, and after struggling through his rookie year in 2011, McGee was unhittable in 2012, managing a 1.95 ERA, an 11.9 K/9, a 1.8 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9 in 69 appearances. McGee has gotten off to a rough start to this season, allowing 5 runs on 5 hits in 4 innings of work, but the Rays are confident that he can get back on track and be a huge part of their bullpen once again. McGee’s conversion to the bullpen has turned out excellent. Alex Torres has a chance to be just as good.
Torres’ fastball won’t hit the high-90’s like McGee’s, but he gets excellent movement on it even at 95 MPH and does a great job commanding it down in the zone. The biggest difference between Torres and McGee, though, is that Torres has a slider and even a changeup that he actually trusts while McGee has a tendency to overuse his fastball in big spots, and as long as Torres can keep throwing strikes, he has the ability to give hitters from both side of the plate fits with his three-pitch arsenal. Torres and McGee are completely different pitchers, but they both are left-handed pitchers who have the ability to dominate both lefties and righties with electric fastballs and devastating breaking pitches. And with any luck, Torres’ career path will start mirroring McGee’s extremely soon.
Torres’ talents and health- he has no real injury history- would certainly seem to warrant a shot in the Rays’ big league rotation, but with that not likely to happen considering the Rays’ overabundance of quality young pitching, Torres should head to the bullpen and he has the ability to thrive there, maybe even holding down a closer role someday if everything goes well. Torres watched his career completely fall apart and had to start thinking about life after baseball after he suffered through a horrific 2012 at Triple-A. But after the way he has roared back, his talents are certainly still salvageable, and he looks like a clear candidate to be the next Jake McGee: a pitching prospect with electric stuff who fails to meet expectations for a while but then becomes as good as it gets out of the bullpen in the major leagues. We have to keep asking the same question unceasingly- is Torres’ control breakthrough something that will last, even against major league hitters? However, as Torres continues to prove that the answer to that question is yes, the Rays have to be excited to see just how good he can be out of their bullpen in the coming years.