The annual rites of spring include springing forward in time, animals and plants emerging from their winter dormancy and most importantly pitchers competing for spots at the back end of the rotation and bullpen at spring training.
The 29 pitchers who have thrown for the Twins this spring training each are at different parts of their careers. There are prospects coming into big league camp for the first time, minor leaguers who are hoping to crack the majors and grizzled veterans looking for another shot at the bigs.
Kevin Slowey, an exciting 22-year-old pitching prospect for the Twins who was drafted in 2005, represents the future of the Twins.
Ricky Barrett has been roughed up this spring while
Known as a methodical pitcher, Slowey relies on control to get batters out. He has an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio. His spring training stats have been stellar with no unearned runs in five innings during three appearances.
"I think you get into trouble going into spring training expecting to get something or go somewhere," Slowey said of his spring training goals. "A really broad general goal is to get better and see how these older guys carry themselves."
Slowey doesn't find himself having one standout pitch. "I think just my ability to throw anything for strikes ... at any count while being comfortable throwing it."
As for facing major leaguers in spring training like Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon, Slowey doesn't feel any added pressure when going up against them. "It's just a little bit different because it's the guys you recognize now. They are the faces you've seen before on baseball cards and TV."
Slowey approaches major league batters nearly the same as he does with minor league hitting. "You go with what you have. Obviously with some guys up there you know what their strengths are. Others you may not know.
"A lot of times you talk to the catcher. We have a lot of excellent catchers in our organization like (Joe) Mauer, (Mike) Redmond and Chris Heintz. You get with them before the game and say, 'Hey, I'm going with you. Whatever you call, that's the way we're doing it.' And that seems to work out the best."
25-year-old minor league relief pitcher Ricky Barrett has similar feelings about facing major leaguers. "A good friend of mine, Derek Lee (first baseman of the Chicago Cubs), told me that no matter where you are at, no matter where you are playing, it's all the same game. But obviously major leaguers are better hitters so you are trying to keep the ball down a little more."
A hard-throwing hurler, Barrett is one of the several relievers trying to crack the Twins bullpen this spring as a second lefty to compliment Dennys Reyes. He has spent part of five seasons in the minors, having a 3.42 ERA in 47.1 innings of relief work at Triple-A Rochester last season.
Kevin Slowey has been impressive
And yet he has had a rough spring, giving up five earned runs in 2.1 innings during three appearances so far.
Barrett relies on his fastball, throwing it 90 percent of the time. His velocity is in the mid-90's.
However his career was almost derailed with a shoulder injury.
"I had surgery the year after I got drafted. My shoulder was sore. I had torn a tendon," Barrett said. "At that point, I felt like I was so far away from making the majors, never going to get there.
"I was looking at my options, thinking about going back to school. Then the last couple years in the minors went by pretty good. Now I'm very close."
Veteran reliever Mike Venafro is making a case for a spot in the Twins' bullpen with a strong spring. Brainerd Dispatch/Trevor Williams » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Barrett describes the dynamic of being a teammate but also competing against other Twin relievers for a spot. "Obviously some guys who have big league experience have an advantage already going into spring training. But I don't want anyone to do badly. You don't wish that on anyone. If you wish for someone to do badly, it's usually going to be you."
One of his teammates that is making a case for the second lefty spot in the bullpen is 33-year-old sidearmer Mike Venafro. Venafro has been with five teams on the major league level and several more in spring training and in the minors. This spring he has had a dazzling performance with no runs, two hits, two walks and four strikeouts in five innings of relief.
He signed a minor league contract with the Twins in the offseason. Described as a "split contract," a minor league contract stipulates what a player would receive if he makes the major league team versus being sent to the minors.
Venafro doesn't find the adjustment going from team to team much of an issue since he's been through the process several times.
Venafro became a sidearm pitcher in college. Not invited onto his college's spring baseball trip when he was a sophomore, he went home and decided to become a sidearm pitcher to improve his chances of success.
"I went back home and I wanted to do something new. I had tinkered with throwing sidearm a little bit in high school," Venafro said. "I decided to re-unveil myself as this new kind of pitcher."
Venafro describes the advantages of throwing sidearm. "For me, it came easier. If it didn't come easy, it wouldn't work. As an approach, as a sidearm pitcher, since there are so few of us out there, you can get away with more in the middle of the plate.
"You also have the advantage of delivery with a different release point. My sinker is my best pitch. For most sidearmers, that's their best pitch."
Venafro enjoys competing for a spot in the bullpen. "I think competition is good. I wish everyone took that approach to spring training. They would get more out of spring training. It keeps it lively and brings the best out of guys most of the time."
As spring training continues these pitchers will continue to showcase their skills.
Slowey may emulate Matt Garza and make the majors sooner rather than later. Barrett still has time to rebound and put up some numbers. And Venafro continues the odyssey of many middle relievers of going from team to team, competing to get another shot in the majors.
TREVOR WILLIAMS, sports copy editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5866.
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