Pirates get to try out Rule 5 pick Veal
Left-hander looking to earn spot to remain with big league club
BRADENTON, Fla. -- As the Pirates spend the coming weeks filling out the remaining bullpen spots, keep your eye on left-hander Donald Veal. As was the case with Evan Meek last spring, Veal came into Spring Training with the situation of being a Rule 5 Draft pick. That essentially leaves the Pirates with two options.
If they want to be guaranteed of keeping him in their system, the 6-foot-3 Veal will have to make the Pirates' Opening Day roster and remain on it for the rest of the season.
Management sits just six weeks out from having to make that decision, and as things stand now, Veal is certainly in contention for one of those remaining bullpen spots. During the last month, in fact, the power lefty has come from a long-shot to the subject of some serious consideration.
"He's made a lot of progress in a short period of time," manager John Russell said. "I've noticed it. [Pitching coach] Joe [Kerrigan] has noticed it. Coming in as a Rule 5 guy, he's doing everything he can to make sure that he can get all he can get out of every day. That's important. Being able to make the adjustments as quickly as he has, I think that's also another big plus for him."
Veal came in after a second straight season with Chicago's Double-A affiliate. But it was also a second straight season marred with control issues.
After a breakout year in 2006, Veal's stock had escalated. At the end of the season, one in which he combined to go 11-5 with a 2.15 ERA in 14 starts at both the low A and high A level, Veal was listed by Baseball America as Chicago's second-best prospect. The former second-round Draft pick also finished the season with 174 strikeouts in 155 innings.
That success stalled in 2007. In his first taste at Double-A, Veal made 28 appearances (27 starts) and finished with a 4.97 ERA. The strikeout total (131) was still impressive, but his walk total (73) was becoming a concern.
In 2008, that walk total inched up to 81 in 29 Double-A starts, and Veal finished 5-10 and with a 4.52 ERA. He did finish fourth in the Southern League with 123 strikeouts, but overall his value dropped, and it dropped far enough for the Cubs to risk losing Veal by not protecting him on their 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 Draft.
"I think I put some pressure on myself after '06 about then getting to the big leagues," Veal said. "After pitching well in low A and high A, I was thinking, 'OK, if I pitch well here in Double-A, I'll be in the big leagues.' I put a lot of pressure on myself early and it kind of hurt me throughout the whole season."
What the numbers didn't show, though, was that Veal's difficulties weren't limited to on-field issues. Veal lost his mother to cancer in November 2004 and then tragically lost his father in a scuba diving accident in between the 2007 and '08 seasons.
After the Pirates selected Veal in December, Huntington alluded to the fact that these external circumstances may have played a role in Veal's struggles. Whether they did or not, the lefty still refuses to use them as an excuse. In fact, he insists that it was during these tough personal times that he needed baseball more than ever.
|"Donnie Veal is really an interesting young pitcher. He's made some great adjustments working down here."|
|-- General manager Neal Huntington|
Russell and Kerrigan each got their first look at Veal back in mid-January, when Veal joined a number of the organization's pitchers at the team's four-day mini-camp. Veal's potential was immediately evident, though it was never much in question since the Pirates had clocked Veal's velocity up to 95 mph in the past.
But there were some necessary adjustments to be made. Kerrigan wanted to "quiet down" Veal's motion. In other word, he wanted Veal to get more natural with his mechanics and to keep things simple.
After the two identified what adjustments needed to be made, Veal remained in Bradenton after mini-camp to work with Jim Benedict, who was hired as a special assistant to general manager Neal Huntington in October.
And from all accounts, the focus and extra work paid off.
"Now you watch him throw, and he's a lot more consistent with his stuff," Russell said, noting the improvement since mini-camp. "I'm impressed with the way he's gone about his stuff. He's committed to it. He works very hard every day. He's a sponge when it comes to information."
Added Huntington: "Donnie Veal is really an interesting young pitcher. He's made some great adjustments working down here, and the initial returns were encouraging."
As a result, Veal's name is now mentioned as in the mix of left-handed bullpen options, right after John Grabow and Sean Burnett, both of whom have obviously already established themselves with the Pirates.
Veal has been almost exclusively used as a starter in his professional career, but because of his circumstances as a Rule 5 pick, making the club will be easiest to do as a reliever. For now, that is the path the Pirates intend to keep him on.
The key now will be parlaying those mechanical adjustments made in bullpen sessions into success against Major League hitters in the upcoming Grapefruit League game schedule.
"I absolutely see a difference, and even the confidence is coming back," Veal said. "It's getting easier to let the ball go without losing the location. I think if I go out and just prove to them that I've made those adjustments and if I can relax and just do it in a game situation, then I think that will help my situation a lot.
And doing so will allow Veal to accomplish his one remaining objective: "I want to make it a tough decision for them," he said.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.