With the expansion of the Latin American pipeline into the St. Louis Cardinals’ United States affiliates, for the first time we were forced to make a decision on our annual award criteria for the top first-year players in the system. Rather than include academy players while in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela for consideration, we will base our awards on all players’ first year of competition in the USA.
The lights-out pitching of 20-year-old Panamanian right-hander Hector Corpas was a key driver in the above decision and our subsequent selection of him as The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Rookie Relief Pitcher of the Year for 2010.
Signed as a 17-year-old in May 2007, Corpas made his debut that summer in the Dominican Summer League before moving into the rotation for the 2008 Venezuelan Summer League Cardinals.
In 2009, he returned to a relief role. Finding his control, Corpas not only led the VSL Cardinals in saves, but also placed second in the entire league. The right-hander's strikeout to walk ratio was 30-to-7 and his ERA was 1.56. Last fall, we named Corpas our TCN/Scout.com VSL Reliever of the Year.
The question coming into 2010 was whether or not the 6-foot-3, 170-pounder could sustain against the higher level of competition on American soil.
The affirmative answer was quickly and effectively demonstrated.
His manager on the Appalachian League champion Johnson City Cardinals, Mike Shildt, is one of Corpas’ biggest backers and offered the following remarks upon being informed of this award.
“Hector was lights out,” Shildt observed. “It is a well-deserved honor. The thing, at least for me and I don’t think I am alone in this - like any manager, you work so hard to get a lead in a game and you get seven or eight innings into it and you get to the point where you’ve got that lead, you want to bring it home.
“There is such a comfortable feeling when walking onto the field or making the switch in the ninth to bring Hector in with the lead. You feel pretty good about this game being over,” he said.
Due to his relative inexperience, Corpas did not begin the season designated as the team’s closer, but that changed in a hurry.
“In spring, we knew he had the stuff to handle the role,” Shildt recalled. “He is a young guy, only 20 years old and wasn’t always in that role in previous years.
“I wanted to make sure I brought him along slowly. This year, our first save opportunity went to Francisco Guzman. He was fine, 1-2-3. I kind of had thoughts of a platoon, see who could do it and not overexpose Hector early on, being a younger guy.
“The next night, a save situation, Hector got it. And when you watched, you went ‘OK, that is what it looks like,’ Shildt said.
Once Corpas got on a roll, he continued to deliver.
“We had a lot of opportunities to get saves early in the season and he converted his first nine or ten and he did it in fairly easy fashion. He’s got that ability,” the manager said.
Corpas sports a very effective split-fingered fastball, which at 82-83 MPH proved to be a swing-and-miss offering, especially when contrasted with a fastball that consistently sits in the low 90’s.
“He throws two pitches for strikes,” Shildt said. “Plus fastball. He’ll average 92 and when he needs it, he will get 93 or 94. His other pitch is a splitty. A lot of guys have splittys and you hold your breath and go ‘I hope it is on.’
“It can be a devastating pitch. He’s got control of the split, which is difficult to do. When a lot of these guys get behind 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1, you can eliminate the split because they are not going to throw it and you can sit on the fastball.
“With him, he can throw a split behind in the count and can throw it for strikes, which is critical and is going to be critical for him at higher levels when you get hitters with a little better approach and ability to execute,” Shildt said.
With Corpas having this weapon, it helped keep Shildt’s late-game blood pressure in check.
“When he comes in with runners on, it is not like he is bouncing the split at 55 feet,” the manager said. “He would keep it down, but he could control it down in the zone so you didn’t really have to be concerned. We had good catching in (Cody) Stanley and Tart (Travis Tartamella). You are not concerned he is going to wild pitch a run in.
“Literally, you hand him the ball and eight pitches later, the game was over,” Shildt said.
Corpas’ 17 saves lapped the rest of the Appalachian League, with his nearest competitor having only nine. He was also first among hurlers in games finished (21) and appearances (24). Corpas topped all Cardinals short-season relievers in saves and his total was good enough to tie for third in the system even when including all full-year pitchers.
“He converted 17 saves in a short season in 20 opportunities and about the three that he didn’t convert – they were all one-run games that he came into,” Shildt recalled. “In all three of them, while he didn’t convert the save, he left the inning with the game tied. He didn’t give it up where he suffered a loss. His only loss was when I brought him in with a tie, so that was a different kind of scenario.
“The couple of times when he did not execute the save, he took it very hard, but showed the ability to be resilient and have the attitude, ‘that isn’t going to happen again tonight,” which was good.
“They are going to give up saves; I don’t care who you have. Your closer is not infallible. Having that ability to come back on short notice and not only get it behind you, but be better and turn it up a little bit, that is something we are not teaching,” Shildt said.
Corpas fanned 27 and walked only three in 25 1/3 innings over 24 games for Johnson City. His ERA was 2.13 and he limited opposing hitters to a collective .209 average. With two outs and runners in scoring position, it dropped to just .083.
Corpas was awarded with a berth as the only reliever on the 14-man Appalachian League All-Star Team.
Cardinals senior field instructor Mark DeJohn is another Corpas admirer. He also notes some areas for improvement as well as the right-hander’s potential ceiling.
“He’s got a plus fastball, a plus arm,” DeJohn noted. “He’s got good arm strength. He throws his changeup kind of like a split so he needs to develop a breaking ball to go with that. When you’ve got an arm like that, you’ve got something to work with.
“Those are the kinds of kids where you give them a little time and hopefully they can get it. And once they do, with their arm strength, you’ve got a major league pitcher. He’s somebody that we obviously like and hopefully, he will keep getting better,” DeJohn said.
In 2011, Corpas seems positioned to move up in the Cardinals system. Shildt is in full support.
“I don’t think there is any question that he can compete for a full season job next spring,” the manager said.
Congratulations to Hector Corpas, The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com Minor League Rookie Relief Pitcher of the Year for 2010.
Note: Link to article with all previous award winners across the system club by club as well as 2010 team recaps, exclusively for subscribers.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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