The scouting and development process that led to this point – in which Kyle Weiland will make his big league debut as a starter for the Red Sox on Sunday – began more than a decade ago, when the right-hander was about 10 years old.
There have been some interesting twists of differing magnitude in the career path of the 24-year-old, who will take the start for the Sox against the Orioles on Sunday. And while certainly not the most important, one of the most interesting occurred at the very earliest stages of his baseball life, when he was a Little Leaguer.
Weiland was taking pitching lessons with Kris Wilken, at the time the New Mexico State Player of the Year and a draftee of the Red Sox in 1997 (Wilken would attend the University of Houston rather than signing). That led to an introduction to Wilken’s teammate and best friend, Kyle Evans – then a pitcher at Eldorado High School.
Evans went on to enjoy a successful college career at Baylor, got drafted and spent six years in the minors in the Indians system before he moved on to a front-office career. The first organization for whom he worked was the Indians, but by 2008, Evans – now a pro scout for the Sox – was working in Boston as the Sox’ video advance scouting coordinator.
It was in that year that Weiland, then a junior at Notre Dame, was going to be draft eligible. And while Evans did not work with the Sox’ amateur scouting operation, he was happy to weigh in about a longtime friend.
“Even as a young kid taking lessons Kyle had great aptitude (ability to take instructions given to him right there and put them into practice) and piqued my interest,” Evans wrote in an email.
Weiland, too, attended Eldorado, which was not only Evans’ alma mater but also the school where his mother worked as a counselor. Weiland ended up being recruited to pitch at Notre Dame, and Evans would occasionally touch base with him.
And so, by 2008, Evans recalled having “just enough interaction [with Weiland] that when [then-Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod or current amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye] would bring up his name I could say, ‘Yeah, he's a great kid, from a great family, and I think there's a great chance he ends up both bigger and better than what you see right now.’
“They were on him and I'm not sure my opinion meant anything, but it didn't stop me from throwing it in when I heard Kyle's name.”
A HIDDEN TALENT
The Sox were indeed already on Weiland. Area scout Chris Mears and cross-checker Danny Haas believed that he was a promising young prospect whose talent likely exceeded where he would go in the draft.
And that status, in turn, was a function of another twist in Weiland’s journey. At Notre Dame, he ranked third in the country in saves as a freshman. He was slated to join the team’s rotation the following spring. But that winter, he slipped on some icy stairs and broke his collarbone.
That cost Weiland much of his season, and when he did return to the mound, it was once again as a reliever. He split an ineffective season between the rotation and bullpen, with his ERA more than doubling, from 2.37 to 5.66. He pitched in the Cape League after that summer – in the process, putting himself very much on the scouting map while forging a 2.38 ERA while punching out more than a batter an inning in 14 appearances, 13 as a reliever – but when he returned to South Bend, it was once again as a closer.
The scouting consequence was two-fold. First, while making mostly single-inning appearances, Weiland’s opportunity to develop as a pitcher – and to showcase his full mix of offerings – was limited, since he rarely needed to use all three of his pitches while throwing an inning at a time.
Moreover, whereas pitchers are often efficient to scout, with front-office members and cross-checkers parachuting in to see the top college starters work on Friday night, Weiland was not pitching on such a schedule. As one person who took part in the process of scouting Weiland for the Sox noted, “I went into South Bend for a weekend, literally spent three days waiting for him to pitch. I got to see a lot of South Bend and one inning of Kyle Weiland.”
Ultimately, the Sox did manage to get at least a handful of scouts and front-office members for looks at the right-hander, even in a year when he threw just 30 1/3 innings as a back-end reliever for a college team that had a bad starting rotation and offered few save opportunities.
A strong consensus formed. Weiland was being badly miscast by his college program as a closer. His future might well be as a reliever, but since he was better than any of Notre Dame’s starters, it made no sense that his role had been circumscribed.
Nonetheless, even as a reliever, the team saw a low- to mid-90s two-seam fastball with decent sink that generated bad contact by opposing hitters (especially righties). In those instances when he had occasion to use it, he featured a legitimate swing-and-miss curveball. He also had at least the makings of a changeup, though it remained to be seen how good that pitch could become.
At a lanky 6-foot-3, he had a pitcher’s height and long levers, and he was athletic enough to suggest that he was projectable. His athleticism also combined with a clean delivery to make him a good candidate to be durable. And then, of course, there were the extremely positive reports on the pitcher’s makeup from both Mears and Evans.
The Sox felt that Weiland’s pitch mix likely would have vaulted him into a higher round – almost surely, at the least, the second round – had he been a starter. In fact, in their evaluations, the Sox mulled similarities between Weiland and Justin Masterson, the sinkerballing right-hander whom the club had taken in the second round of the 2006 draft, a pitcher whom the Sox likewise viewed as a terrific bet to be no worse than a late-innings reliever, with the potential of being something more.
According to the pitcher’s agent, Mark Rodgers, there had even been some hope that he might get plucked in the first round. Assuming that didn’t happen, however, the Sox saw an intriguing opportunity. If they could pop Weiland in the third round – in which the Sox had both the No. 85 overall pick as well as the No. 108 selection of the 2008 draft – he might represent a pitcher who could deliver excellent value.
MAKING HIS CASE IN THE SOX SYSTEM
That is precisely what happened. Weiland was on the board when the Sox were making their second selection of the third round (and fifth overall of the draft), and so the team jumped at the chance to tab him. He signed quickly for the recommended slot bonus of $322,000, a process that was facilitated in part by two things.
First, even though many (though not all) in the Sox organization thought that his most likely path to the majors was as a late-innings reliever, the team wanted to at least explore his potential as a starter. If he signed quickly, he would have a chance to go to Lowell and start making up for lost time in a rotation immediately.
Second, Weiland made clear that he wanted the opportunity to return to Notre Dame in the fall to continue his education. If he signed quickly and was able to start his professionalization with Lowell, the Sox were willing to let him head back to campus rather than to Fall Instructional League in Florida.
The same thing that struck Evans about Weiland as a Little Leaguer seemed to hold true as he made his way through the professional ranks. He was able to use both instruction and experience to improve as he moved up across levels. When Evans (who is asked chiefly to evaluate players from other organizations rather than those in the Sox’ system) would check in periodically on Weiland, he saw a pitcher who was improving steadily.
“I thought he had a great chance to get [to the majors] as a reliever and thought he was someone we needed to give every chance to start first because he was smart enough and athletic enough to make some adjustments and stay in a rotation,” Evans wrote. “I don’t think I was alone in that boat.”
After holding opponents to a .166 average while striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings at Lowell, Weiland started making his case as a starter. With Hi-A Salem in 2009, after carrying a 1-5 record with a 7.78 ERA through his first nine starts, he commenced a terrific run in which he had a 1.79 ERA over his last 17 starts, finishing the year with a 3.46 ERA and striking out 7.6 batters per nine innings.
Then, last year in Double-A Portland, he started to show even more. Though he had a 5-9 record and 4.42 ERA, those numbers were deemed somewhat misleading. He led all Sox minor league starters by holding opponents to a .236 average. He also averaged 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings, third best in the Eastern League.
More specifically, he showed an improved ability to attack left-handers with the Sea Dogs. His late-breaking curveball, always a swing-and-miss weapon against righties, became a pitch that he would backdoor effectively to catch left-handers looking or that he could drop – literally – on their back foot.
“A lot of guys see that curveball out over the plate and it ends up on their back foot,” Stephen Fife, who was drafted by the Sox in the third round in ’08 and pitched with Weiland from 2008-10, noted earlier this year. “He probably got six or eight swings and misses last year [in Portland] on their back foot on a swing. Guys swing and miss and it hits them in the foot.”
His changeup also showed improvement. Increasingly, he looked more like a starting pitcher capable of assuming a workload of 180 to 200 innings as perhaps a No. 4 starter for the Red Sox. Even so, while he had shown some promising glimpses against left-handers, the Sox were still hoping to see more.
“We thought he was probably going to need something else to get good left-handed hitters out,” said one team official. “We weren’t pessimistic about him doing that, necessarily, but he needed to develop another pitch.”
A BREAKTHROUGH YEAR
This year, Weiland unfurled that offering in Triple-A Pawtucket. The Sox – who had wanted him to focus on his three-pitch mix while working up the ranks – let him incorporate a cutter, allowing him to get in on the hands of lefties. He also showed a more refined ability to execute his backdoor curveball at will in Triple-A, and further improved his ability to use his two-seam fastball in on left-handers.
And so, each time the Sox needed a pitcher from the minors this year – whether a reliever or a starter – Weiland’s name was brought up as a potential call-up. He was no longer being viewed by the organization as a likely reliever (though the Sox have not ruled out that path for him, particularly down the stretch this year, depending on the health of the rest of other rotation members).
“He could go into the bullpen, but why would you ever close the door on seeing if this guy could start?” Hazen noted last month. “There are guys who make the adjustment, pick up a pitch or improve command, and you say, ‘Yeah, he’s a good bullpen guy, but why can’t he start?’ With his performance, he isn’t forcing us to make any decisions other than when to call him up.”
The organizational consensus became that Weiland is a pitcher with the potential to impact the club either as a reliever and a starter. His terrifically consistent performance in Pawtucket – a 3.00 ERA, 99 strikeouts in 93 innings, a batting average that barely cracked the Mendoza Line, with lefties hitting just .174 against him – convinced nearly anyone who saw him that he had the goods to deserve a shot in the majors as a starter.
“From what I understand, they always thought, ‘He was a closer in college and maybe he’ll be a reliever again.’ But what I’ve seen from him as a starter, he’s certainly got the ability and stuff to do it,” noted Sox pitcher Andrew Miller, who was in the Pawtucket rotation with Weiland. “It’s good that he’s getting the opportunity. He’s earned it – especially this year. At a certain point, if he’s able to have success in Triple-A as a starter, he’s able to hold his velocity, maybe you think, ‘Oh, maybe he’s a starter.’
“He’s been throwing the ball incredibly well this year. His fastball moves all over the place,” Miller added, describing it as an offering that sits at 92-93 mph and tops out around 94-95. “He’s got good breaking stuff, good feel and throws strikes. He’s got a lot of swing and miss pitches. He struck out a ton of guys. … Hopefully, he comes up here and trusts his stuff, because it’s definitely good enough.”
That, at least, is what the Sox hope becomes evident on the final day of the first half, as Weiland makes a Red Sox debut that has seemingly been a long time in the making.