Friday, February 20, 2009

The Meek Shall Inherit The Hill

Evan Meek was born in Bellevue, Washington, and is a 2002 graduate of the Inglemoor Vikings. He was a classmate of White Sox wild child Bobby Jenks, who was a couple of years ahead of him (they weren't teammates, though - Jenks didn't have the grades to play, and probably couldn't have gotten out of detention hall even if he did.)

He was drafted by the Twins in the 11th round that same year, but didn't sign right away. Instead, Meek went to Bellevue (WA) Community College, where he was named the top starting pitcher in the NWACC as a "draft and follow" player.

In 2003, he did sign on the dotted line, and went 7-1 with a 2.47 ERA for the Twin's short-season club, the Elizabethton Twins. In 51 innings, he walked 24 and struck out 47, allowing 33 hits. Baseball America rated him as the Appalachian League's #11 prospect, for what that's worth.

But in 2004, the right-hander suddenly lost all semblance of control, for no discernible reason. Meek walked 15 batters in only six innings at Class A Quad City before returning to extended spring training.

Hoping he was straightened out, the Twin Cities sent him back to Elizabethton, where he walked 25 more in 22 innings with an 8.06 ERA.

In 2005, the Twins gave him one more shot in the A Midwest League with Beloit, but he walked 36 more batters in 18 innings with a 10.00 ERA. Meek threw 23 wild pitches in 46 innings over two seasons.

He was, not too surprisingly, released by Minnesota midway through the year. Meek took the time off and tried to get his head together. That fall, the San Diego Padres signed him as a free agent and diligently worked side sessions with him, and his control improved significantly.

Meek went 6-6 with a 4.98 ERA for the high A Lake Elsinore Storm in the hitter's California League. Still, he walked 62 in 119 innings of work as a starter, better, but not enough to keep him in the Padre organization.

He was traded with Dale Thayer to Tampa Bay for Russell Branyan. The Rays did their homework, and they deleted two of his starts in which he gave up 17 runs in 2/3 of an inning. Meeks pitched 118-1/3 innings, striking out 113 and compiling a 3.72 ERA without those two stinkers.

They had one other trick up their sleeve. TB switched him to the pen, where he could rear back and fire without pacing himself. Meek was 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA after joining the Visalia Oaks at season's end, but the best was yet to come.

He spent 2007 with the AA Montgomery Biscuits and was 2-1 with a save and 4.30 ERA in 44 games. In 67 innings, he struck out 69 and walked 34 while registering 95 mph on the radar gun regularly.

A concussion and stiff shoulder early in the year hurt his line, but Meek finished strong, not allowing a run from August 9th on. He followed that with a stint in the Arizona Fall League, allowing one run and three hits while whiffing nine and walking five in 9-2/3 innings. His ERA was 0.93.

But the Rays, brimming with talent, had no room for Meek on their 40-man roster. Pittsburgh did, and selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the 2007 season.

Meek looked a little shaky at camp. He failed to top 91 MPH in spring training, claiming that he was taking something off of his stuff to improve his control. That's never good.

He made his MLB debut on April 2nd. His first warmup pitch went to the backstop and the next two hopped in the dirt. It didn't get any better; he gave up a two-run gopher ball to the Braves in his first frame in the show.

Meek walked 12 in 13 innings while striking out 7, and was 0-1 with a 6.92 ERA in nine games. Meek's most infamous performance came in the Bucs home lid-lifter against the Cubs, when the 25-year old picked up the loss after walking five in one inning of work. He allowed multiple runs in five of his first six April appearances.

Guess what? The Bucs waived him, and after he cleared, they offered him back to Tampa Bay. Guess what? They didn't want him back! Pittsburgh worked out a cash deal to keep Meek, who they liked but was obviously in need of the kind of tune-up only the coaching mechanics tinkering in the minors can provide.

They sent him kicking and screaming to Altoona to work out the kinks. Meek beefed, wanting to drop no lower than AAA Indy, no doubt fearing that he'd dropped completely out of the Pirate future. Neal Huntington gave him a choice - his way or the highway.

Meek took off a few days and finally came to the conclusion that Altoona was OK with him.

"I thought about the fact that Neal had made a deal to keep me," Meek recalled for Jen Langosch of "He obviously believed in me. He stuck with me, and the Pirates stuck with me. That's what helped me make my decision."

"And everything worked out great," he continued. "They kept their promise, too. They said that when I got my velocity back and my control back, they'd move me up."

Now that the warm and fuzzies were firmly established, Meek did his work and was 1-1 with 2 saves and a 2.81 ERA in nine outings for Altoona. More importantly, he struck out 17 and walked just three in 16 innings.

It was on to Indy, where he had 2 saves and a 2.40 ERA in 23 games, walking 14 in 41-2/3 frames while fanning 34.

Meek followed that with a strong performance in the Mexican Winter League, pitching for the Mazatlan Deer. He had a 2.93 ERA, 8 BB, 14 Ks, and 10 saves in 15-1/3 innings, with an opposing batting average of .167. Rene Gayo watched, and was impressed that Meek was showing some control and throwing as hot as 98 MPH while consistently hitting 94 MPH.

He put himself back on the fast track, reaching #8 on the Pirate's 2009 Top Ten prospect list, according to Minor League Ball.

Ah, nothing like a career revived to warm over the spring tedium. Will Meek break camp with the team? Well, he throws hard, with a sinking heater - he gets a lot of ground outs for a power pitcher, - curve and slider, and we know how much the suits like guys that throw BBs.

But there is a numbers game in camp, and he has an option left. It would make some sense to start him out at Indy to get his motion etched into his muscle memory. And whether he starts in Pittsburgh or not, he's a solid bet to be in the show sometime in 2009.

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