Sunday, December 6, 2009

#10 - Donnie Veal

Hey, what's a guy that spent the entire year in the majors doing as a prospect? Well, it's Donnie Veal, a Rule 5 pick, and the time he spent sunning himself in the pen certainly didn't earn him any MLB cred - or innings. 16-1/3 frames hardly qualifies as big league time.

The 16 K's looked good; the 20 walks and 7.16 ERA, not so good. He was dominating when he threw strikes, which was seldom.

Veal, 25, was born in Mississippi, and moved west, where he attended Buena High in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The Chicago White Sox drafted him after his senior year of 2003, but Veal decided to attend the University of Arizona instead.

That didn't go quite as planned. He ended up injuring his labrum and after passing on surgery in favor of rehab, Veal transferred to Pima CC. That turned the trick. He was drafted in the second round of the 2005 draft by the Chicago Cubs, taking home a $530K bonus and jumping right into pro ball.

Veal went 1-3 with a 3.18 ERA in 11 games between the Mesa Cubs of the Arizona Rookie League and Low A Boise in his maiden season.

He hit the Cub map the following season. Veal combined for an 11-5 record and a 2.16 ERA in 154-1/3 innings between Class-A Peoria and Class High-A Daytona that year. Veal struck out 174 and walked 82, a foreshadowing of things to come.

But it was all sunshine after that season. The big lefty shared the Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors with Rich Hill, and entered the 2007 season as the Cubs #2 prospect and number #52 in the all the minors according to Baseball America. Chicago thought he was the second coming of Dontrelle Willis.

But Veal struggled in his first taste of AA ball in 2007, walking 73 batters in 130-1/3 innings and finishing with a 4.97 ERA at Tennessee, whiffing 131. Veal said he lost his mental discipline and tried to get Chicago in one fell swoop instead of taking things a step at a time.

Oddly, now-Pirate and then Cub teammate Kevin Hart inspired Veal. Hart got a late September call-up and impressed the Cubs enough that he made the playoff roster for the National League Division Series. Maybe Veal thought it was that easy (as Hart can tell you, it isn't). He dropped in the Cubbie rankings, but it wasn't a free-fall; he was still their #6 minor-league prospect going into 2008.

His struggles continued that year, both on the mound and personally. His mother had died years before, and his dad passed away in a scuba diving accident. Veal took on the responsibility of mother, father, and brother to his younger brother Devin, who was a freshman at the U of Arizona, and went into a shell for awhile.

He was still pitching at AA Tennessee, and went 5-10 with a 4.58 ERA. In 145-1/3 innings, his K's dropped to 123, the first time they fell to under a K per inning rate, and he walked 81. He bombed in the Arizona Fall league, too, walking 13 in nine innings.

His star had fallen in the Cub eyes, and he was left off the 40-man roster. But the Bucs saw a big frame that could bring the heat and had a plus curve and workable change. So they rolled the dice and brought him on via Rule 5 (it was thought that the Rangers liked Veal too, but their roster was full).

He faced 142 left-handed batters in 2008 and didn't allow a homer. His splits showed that he was murder on lefties, so the Pirates, who saw him as a starter down the line, hoped he could serve as at least a LOOGY and long man in 2009.

So he came to Pittsburgh, and thanks to a couple of iffy and stretched out (some say bogus) injuries, he made it through the year. A groin pull and sprained finger netted him 16 games, 27-1/3 innings, and an ERA of 3.95 at Altoona and Indy while on rehab, more work than he got in at Pittsburgh.

Veal made the bet look smart in Arizona, though. In 7 starts for the Scottsdale Scorpions, he worked 21 frames, compiling a 3-1 record, a 2.14 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 22 strikeouts with just 7 walks. He was even an AFL Player of the Week awardee.

The 6-4, 215 pounder has critical control issues, and except for a small sample in the Arizona desert, has had them his entire pro career. His farm walk rate was 5.1/9 innings, and he often fell behind hitters, taking his curve out of equation.

But Veal is a lefty, he throws 91-94 MPH, and has a knee-buckling hook and improving change-up. Like Evan Meek, he's another wild child pick-up, and Joe Kerrigan and Ray Searage hope that their tinkering can fix that. And if they could do it with Meek, they have at least a chance with Veal. Still, that's a big if.

Now that he's under team control, the Pirates can work him every fifth day, maybe at Indy but more likely starting him out at Altoona. The team has to knock a year of rust off the big guy, and that will take a season or two. They value him as a starter, and will work him hard as a member of the rotation, though a LOOGY role is an eventual possibility.

And a final bit of Bucco trivia before we sign off: Donnie Veal is the cousin of former Phoenix Suns basketball guard Kevin Johnson.

(Next - #9 Gorkys Hernandez)


WilliamJPellas said...

Speaking of ol' KJ, I will NEVER forget that time he crammed one right down the throat of Hakeem Olajuwan in a playoff game. To this day that is one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen in sports. KJ was 6-1, Olajuwan was 6-10 and the best defensive player in the game, but Johnson came down on a fast break, took a look at Hakeem waiting for him in the lane, and just exploded to the basket. He was a blur, it happened so fast. Next thing you know, KJ was running back up the court doing this primal yell thing, and Olajuwan was posterized.


Ron Ieraci said...

And who sez we're not an all-sports blog!

WilliamJPellas said...

Well, just one more thought on KJ before we leave the subject and head back to baseball! ;-) I did a little research, and it turns out ol' KJ was NOT on a fast break, but rather did his thing from a halfcourt set. But it was otherwise as I said, as you can see here:

Kevin talks about it here:

Great stuff, methinks, and also very cool that Veal is Johnson's cousin!