Cardinals’ fans surely miss Brendan Ryan’s defense at shortstop right now. Brendan Ryan probably misses winning ballgames in the midst of a 16 game losing streak in Seattle. The Cardinals return on that trade has been surprisingly good though as Maikel Cleto has played his way from Palm Beach through Springfield to Memphis. After making his sixth start in Memphis last night, there’s probably some work to be done.
The book on Maikel Cleto a couple of years ago when he was acquired in the J.J. Putz trade by the Seattle Mariners was virtually the same regardless of who you asked: live arm, unrefined secondary pitches, room for projection, needs work. That was the report that you’d find in some variation at any number of places.
The Good: Cleto’s upside remains considerable, as his fastball sits in the mid-90s with a bit of sink, touching 98 at times. He’s a big, physical presence on the mound and built to eat innings.
The Bad: One scout classified Cleto simply as “a spectacular mess.” Beyond the impressive velocity, he brings little else to the table, as his slider and changeup are rudimentary offerings.
A physical righthander with a slinging arm action, Cleto sits comfortably at 92-94 mph with his fastball, maxes out at 96 and holds his velocity deep into starts. He shows advanced control of his fastball, which has sinking life down in the zone. He’s still developing his secondary stuff, which is made more difficult by the way he dramatically slows down his delivery when not throwing heat. Cleto’s slurvy, high-70s breaking ball features inconsistent rotation, and he shows little faith in his below-average changeup.
The reports all read the same. When the Cardinals acquired Cleto, he required protection on the 40-man roster but the Dominican right hander has moved up surprisingly quickly through the minor league system. Derrick Goold had a typically tremendous writeup of him at the start of June when Cleto was still in Springfield. One paragraph in that particularly sticks out (emphasis mine):
The Cardinals have worked to correct both Cleto’s lack of command and his lack of success with his secondary pitches. [Dyar] Miller and several other pitching coaches in the minor leagues talked with Cleto about keeping his front arm – his lead arm – closed and to pitch “sideways” to the plate. This would create more deception in his delivery by hiding the ball longer. Cleto used to throw with such a focus on velocity that he would fly open early, give a full-frontal view of the pitch he was about to throw and often have the pitch stray high in the zone. A high walk rate and plenty of fly balls was the tip off.
It’s hard to overstate the jump that the 22-year-old pitcher has made in terms of competition. Cleto pitched 63 innings between Palm Beach and Springfield with 69 strikeouts and 22 walks. His arrival at Memphis, marred by a particularly ugly start on Monday, shows the manifestation of control problems. Through 32 innings, Cleto has walked 18, including 6 on Monday.
With an emphasis on developing secondary pitches, Cleto is being asked to do things on the mound and rely on pitches that he’s not had success with in the past. It’s part of the natural maturation process for pitching prospects and it might help explain some of the walks. (Similar to the instruction Joe Kelly has received to pitch inside to hitters more often.) Cleto’s upside is still quite high though and it should be an encouraging sign to have another legitimate starting prospect in the rotation at AAA. Given that Cleto’s projection is less certain than say Shelby Miller, there’s still a strong possibility that Cleto is ultimately a reliever but the starting opportunity window has not passed him yet.
Improving his command and control at Memphis will be an important part of his development. It’s not reasonable to expect perfection after 6 starts — but it’s also not unreasonable to recognize that imperfections still exist.