* RHP Kyle Drabek made 20 starts with the Blue Jays before walking off the Rogers Centre mound June 13, 2012 with pain in his right elbow. He was headed for his second Tommy John surgery. The Chicago White Sox claimed Drabek on waivers Friday … a look back when Drabek was the Jays future in 2010 and pitching at double-A New Hampshire.
Originally published May 4, 2010
By Bob Elliott
MANCHESTER, N.H. _ The future is here.
Here amongst the “Live Free or Die” licence plates.
Here in the Granite State, along the banks of the Merrimack River where the U.S. presidential primaries begin.
The future sits on the wooden bench in the first-base dugout of Merchantsauto.com Stadium after batting practice with a scraggly beard — like the guy in the Scooby-Doo cartoon — and a million-watt smile.
The Blue Jays future is right-hander Kyle Drabek.
He is far away from crowds of 10,000 at the Rogers Centre — 588 miles to be exact, 10 hours and 16 minutes by car, or an hour and a half by prop plane.
Or, ‘X’ amount of starts.
“The future? Really, I didn’t know that,” Drabek says flashing another smile.
Brett Wallace may be hitting home runs at triple-A Las Vegas, but Drabek was the key to the three-player deal when general manager Alex Anthopoulos sent former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies back on Dec. 16. The Jays also got catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud in the deal.
Drabek pitches for the first-place New Hampshire Fisher Cats against the New Britain Rock Cats in double-A Eastern League play.
Would he rather be on the mound in Cleveland facing the Indians?
“That would be nice, but …” Drabek offers.
But his eyes say: ‘I should have been there last week.’
Yet he doesn’t say that.
“I want to get there as quick as possible,” Drabek said. “I’ve talked to my father. He says: ‘When you’re ready, they’ll know you’re ready.”
Drabek, 22, is not like the generation who watched Robert Young in Father Knows Best on black and white TVs.
Papa Doug Drabek does know best. He won 155 games in 13 seasons, captured a Cy Young with the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates and would have pitched against the Blue Jays during the 1992 World Series.
If only, as they say in Pittsburgh, pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera had not delivered a two-out single in Game 7 of the National league Championship Series to score Sid Bream, creaky knees and all, by an inch, putting the Atlanta Braves into the Series.
* * *
The best game Kyle Drabek ever pitched?
Was it with the class-a Clearwater Threshers when he beat the Charlotte Stone Crabs 4-0 with a complete-game in 2009?
Drabek had a 1-0 lead until the bottom of the seventh. So, he was working without a net, as Jim Acker used to say.
Drabek had allowed three hits with two out in the ninth when he gave up back-to-back singles.
He recorded the 27th out on a pop-up to centre, his 98th pitch.
“They were going to take me out at 100 pitches,” Drabek laughs. “The last guy hit a 2-2 pitch. They may have let me finish the batter if he fouled off a couple. I’m not sure, but no more after than.”
But was that your best game?
“No, that wasn’t it,” he says.
* * *
So how good is Drabek?
Both made it with the Jays.
“He’s right there with all those guys,” Signore said.
The Jays would take it if Drabek develops into a Beckett, a Burnett or a Dempster.
“The thing about him,” says outfielder Adam Loewen, of Surrey, B.C., “is that he can pitch. He changes speeds. He locates. And his fastball is 96 m.p.h.”
Drabek is not a one-pitch, stud hoss on the mound.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked and more,” Signore says. “He’s an athlete, he fields his position extremely well and he always seems to drift to the right place.
“He’s going to have four weapons. Besides his fastball, an excellent curve, a good slider and he’ll have a pretty good change when we’re done.”
While scouts rave about Drabek’s curve, manager Luis Rivera, the former Boston Red Sox shortstop, loves his fastball.
“He pounds you inside with his fastball and throws that curve which buckles your knee,” Rivera says. “His last outing was his best. He really put things together. He has more in there.”
Rivera says that, besides grips on pitches and control, he is working on Drabek’s emotions.
“I want him to stay aggressive, but I don’t want him to show emotion,” Rivera says. “He’ll be out there with his teeth clenched and I’m like: ‘Slow down, slow down.’ “
Former Houston Astros closer Joe Sambito has known Kyle since he was a toddler.
“He’s a ball player,” said Sambito from Los Angeles. “He loves to compete and most of the time comes out on top. I see confidence, I don’t see cockiness.”
“This team here, it’s real accepting of each other,” Drabek says with a pause and adds with a laugh “even Loewen.”
* * *
The best game Drabek ever pitched?
Phillies scout Don Welke went into Houston before the 2007 draft when the Phillies selected Drabek in the first round.
“We thought he was ultra-competitive and had plus-plus ability,” Welke said. “What a day he had: Pitched five innings, sat at 96 m.p.h., then went to short and hit two homers.
“He completely dominated high school kids, as he did all year. He was head and shoulders above them,” Welke said.
Best game ever?
“That wasn’t it,” he says.
* * *
“He’s a short six-footer, but he can pitch and he competes better than most,” says a general manager. “He has some big cajones. He’s fearless.”
Drabek has a twinkle in is eye when asked how tall he is?
“I’m, 6-foot-2,” he says,. “The roster (which lists him at six feet) is wrong. I’m also 215, not 210 pounds.”
Drabek remembers being at a pal’s house in Houston watching football when his friend said: “I saw your name on the crawl at the bottom of the TV.”
“This was when the Phillies were talking about trading for Halladay in Decemeber,” Drabek recalls. “I thought when it didn’t happen at the July deadline, it wouldn’t happen. It’s like my dad says: ‘You have to look at it like someone else wants you.’ “
He says the trade shock wasn’t so bad. Like Halladay, his spring camp moved only a few miles and he’s back in the Eastern League where he was in 2009 for the final 15 starts at Reading.
“It was bad to not be playing with guys you broke in with, but good to stay in a league you’re familiar with,” says Drabek, who reads the Jays boxscores “here and there.”
Snider was selected 14th overall by the Jays in 2007. Drabek went four picks later to Philly.
And while Snider is now with the Jays, Drabek remains here, pitching.
His derailment was Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2007 while pitching at class-A Lakewood. One fastball would be clocked at 93, the next pitch at 83.
“I didn’t have any pain. It just felt weird.As soon as the trainer had me move my arm, the pain was an awful,” Drabek says.
* * *
Pat Gillick was worried as he sat in soggy St. Louis last July.
The rain delay before the 11th annual XM Futures Game, stretched from one to two to three hours.
Was he worried the game would be cancelled?
Concerned his Philadelphia Phillies prospects might miss the chance to play at Busch Stadium?
Fretting over making his flight?
“I finally asked what was wrong,” said Welke, now a Texas Rangers scout and a top Gillick aide with the Blue Jays, the Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Phillies.
“He said he was worried Drabek would come out, do a Rick Dempsey on the tarp and get hurt,” Welke said.
With the Baltimore Orioles, Dempsey broke the monotony of a lengthy rain delay by slip-sliding around the bases on the slippery tarp. You may have seen it on a bloopers show.
Drabek, now the Blue Jays’ top prospect after being acquired for Halladay, says he’s never seen the clip.
So, how did he pass the time during the rain delay?
What kind of card game were you playing?
“Cards? We were in the outfield playing aerobic Frisbee. You can throw it really far,” Drabek said. “Fans would cheer if we caught it and boo us if we missed.”
* * *
Tales of Drabek’s athletic prowess began at a young age.
Like at age 12, he was playing shortstop with the infield in and a grounder was hit to him. Rather than throw home, Drabek sprinted towards the plate, dove and tagged the runner on the heel for the out.
“Everyone was screaming: ‘Throw the ball! Throw the ball!’ “ Drabek recalled. “The guy was fast, too.”
Or, playing for the Houston Heat, along with his brother, Justin, and Koby Clemens (son of Roger). The Rocket was there and had heard enough cussin’ and fussin’ so he gathered the players and told them: “Cut out the swearing. Grandmothers, grandfathers and mothers are here, or else I’ll fine you for each swear word.”
Legend has it that Doug Drabek — father of Kyle and Justin and a former Cy Young Award winner, himself — walked over to Clemens and said: “Roger, here’s a blank cheque for my two.”
“My brother and I had some real bad attitudes growing up,” Drabek admitted. “We were overly competitive.”
Or, one day at football practice, the Jugs football machine was shooting balls high into the air to simulate a punt. Drabek said he could hit the football at its apex.
He hit it once.
Someone said “you can’t do it again.”
He hit it again like a skeet shooter.
* * *
As the 2006 draft approached, the anti-Drabek forces were out, targeting both the name and reputation of the stocky right-hander. Scouts said he was “dysfunctionally competitive.”
In 1998, Doug Drabek won six games in 21 starts for Gillick’s Orioles. And while Gillick, 18 years later, was unsure if Drabek’s son would fall to their selection at No. 18, they hoped and followed the right-hander.
“Our Houston area guy, Steve Cohen, got to know the kid, got the information and didn’t listen to rumors,” Gillick said from Seattle.
It was a long process, with Cohen, a regular at The Woodlands Highlanders high school games in Texas, 12 in all.
“Marti Wolever (Phillies scouting director) and Pat told me to stay on him until the end May,” Cohen said from Houston.
Drabek had a public intoxication charge, which was dismissed.
He was involved a single-vehicle crash when his Cadillac Escalade SUV hit a tree in 2005.
“I split my knee and they stitched it up,” Drabek said of the accident. “They had to staple the cut in my head when I was hit with an amplifier. I was lucky, it could have been worse.”
Not what most clubs look for when it comes to investing over a million.
* * *
From the Perfect Game scouting service:“He’s the consensus top HS prospect in the North America as an RHP — he’s not too far off that status as a SS, either … Great natural athlete and things come very easy to him … Big-time football WR, too, with listed 4.4 type speed … Son of former Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek; his dad never had this kind of stuff; his FB is consistently in the 94-95 m.p.h., area and he has probably the best breaking ball in the draft, a filthy low 80s slider with great depth and sharpness … Scouts say his eyesight tests off the charts and his performance backs it up … Lots of concerns about his temper on the field and his maturity off the field … He should go top 10 in the draft, potentially No. 4 to his dad’s old team, the Pirates.”
* * *
“You have to sort through fact and fiction, jealously and envy,” said Cohen, the Phillies’ man on the ground with both ears to the ground. “Most of the negative stuff you heard was of envy. He drove an Escalade. So?”
Cohen, formerly with USA Baseball, was thorough. He spoke to Drabek’s football coach, his athletic director, his principal and the police.
“I told the football coach: ‘We’re talking life-changing money here.’ The coach asked how much? I said $1 million plus,” Cohen said. “The coach said: ‘That’s less than what he’s living on right now.’ “
The Drabeks lived in a 17,100-square-foot home. Doug Drabek earned $1.663 million US in 1998 and roughly $31 million in his 13 seasons.
Cohen and the Phillies worried about Kyle Drabek giving up three runs and busting up the dugout. What would happen in a tight spot in front of a hostile crowd in Atlanta when an ump missed a strike on the corner?
Initially they didn’t like the 15-yard penalties Drabek was given in football.
The athletic director tells Cohen about a game The Woodlands had against district rival Lufkin under the Friday night lights. How it’s fourth and 18, they’re down by five with a minute an a half remaining, the football hits him on the numbers and he drops it.
“And?” Cohen asked.
“He picked up the ball and punted it 40 yards,” he is told.
“(The AD) got into a real lather telling me the story,” Cohen said. “So, he got flagged. Is that a big deal?”
Drabek says he doesn’t remember hoofing away the ball. He does remember the pass, saying: “I tried to catch it with my body instead of my hands. I was upset, real upset.”
Cohen went into meetings with his Phillies bosses prepared.
“One thing you don’t want is that your scouting director is surprised,” Cohen said. “The worst thing to have happened was if we’d drafted Drabek and, a week later, someone calls and says: ‘Did you hear he did this on this date?’ I laid out all the pluses and negatives for Marti.”
* * *
Back on the baseball field, Drabek dominated.
Playing Newman Smith High School — a win meant a trip to the state regional semifinals — Drabek’s fastball was clocked at 97 m.p.h., and he pitched a 2-0 no-hit win. The opposing coach complained: “We couldn’t even bunt.” Foul balls were a mark of success.
“The bigger the stage, the better he did,” Cohen said. “The deeper they went into the state final, they played all their games at Texas A&M or college campus, or minor-league diamonds, drawing upwards of 17,000.
Cohen noticed Drabek had the ability to find a different gear when it mattered.
Woodlands won the state championship and beat Midland for the right to play for the mythical U.S. championship against Katy, as Baseball America’s top-rated high school.
“Someone rammed the Woodlands catcher. Kyle was in the middle of it,” Cohen said.
There was a runner on second a clean single to right and a Dave Parker-like throw home.
“Their guy was out by 10 feet and ran our catcher, yeah. I was fired up, but not as bad as our catcher,” Drabek said. “I didn’t hit anyone. That play ended the sixth. The score was something like 5-3. I didn’t want to hit anyone.”
In the championship game, playing short, Drabek hit the left-centre field bullpen at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, Tex.
On the mound for The Woodlands, he was 12-0 record with an ERA just over 1.00, striking out 138 in 77 innings. At the plate, he hit .443 with 11 homers and 36 RBIs.
“We learned,” Cohen said, “that we didn’t have to worry whether we were going to get an effort, like (we do with) some major leaguers.”
* * *
Cohen knows the importance of makeup from his days putting together Team USA.
“If we put 25 guys together and they’re going to be with each other 18 hours a day that much, who will get along?,” he asks. “If the talent level is close, do we take the kid who gets along or someone who shows us he is high-maintenance the first week of workouts?”
* * *
The Phillies scout saw Team Canada in Italy last fall.
“I saw Greg Hamilton’s group early and knew they’d do well,” Cohen said. “Greg created a family. Everyone bought into the concept. They had some good makeup guys. I could tell from pre-game and batting practice, they all got along well.”
Canada won bronze in the World Cup, its first medal.
Cohen told the story of Team USA being down a run late in the semifinal against Japan in Italy in 2002.
“Aaron Hill comes into the dugout and yells: ‘Screw this, we aren’t losing to these guys.’ He hit a two-run homer into the darkness. We won.”
On draft day, June 6, 2006, Drabek was available when the Blue Jays had their turn. Scouting director Jon Lalonde chose outfielder Travis Snider from Everett, Wash., with the 14th pick. He’s with the Jays now.
The Washington Nationals chose outfielder Chris Marrero, a Florida high-schooler. He’s playing first base at double-A Harrisburg.
There was pacing in the Phillies war room now.
The Milwaukee Brewers chose right-hander Jeremy Jeffress, a Virginia high-schooler next. He has a 7.57 earned run average a double-A Huntsville.
Now, one pick stood between the Phillies and Drabek.
The San Diego Padres chose infielder Matt Antonelli of Wake Forest, whom the Jays had interest in before settling on Snider. Antonelli is hitting .197 at triple-A Portland, after being with the Padres for 21 games in 2009.
The Phillies gave Drabek a $1.550-million bonus. He made his first start against the rookie-class Gulf Coast Tigers, allowing three runs on four hits in one inning.
He pitched five scoreless innings in two of his six appearances and served as a DH, going 1-for-9 with two walks.
The next July, at class-A Lakewood, he was 5-1 with a 4.33 ERA, walking 23 and striking out 46 in 54 innings when he went on the disabled list and then headed for Tommy John surgery. He was back in the Gulf Coast league the next July and after four starts went to class-A Williamsport.
“I’ve watched him in interviews since the operation,” Cohen said. “He’s way more mature.”
Fully recovered in 2009 at Clearwater, Drabek erased worries over his health and durability. In 61 2/3 innings, he had a 2.48 ERA and 74 strikeouts to earn a promotion to Reading.
“He’s a fierce competitor. You know who he’s like? He’s a little like Dave Stieb when it comes to competing. That should tell you a lot,” said Ernie Whit, who managed Drabekat Clearwater.
“I had people tell me he was tough to deal with, how he basically lived in the manager’s office,” Whitt said of Drabek. “I only had him in twice. The one time was something minor, so small I don’t even remember, and the second time was when I told him he was going to double-A.”
Drabek remembers and flashes his ear-to-ear grin.
The listener has no idea what is coming.
“My first complete game, the final out was a fly ball to centre,” Drabek said. “I was moving to back up third and I was so excited when the ball was caught, the first person’s hand I shook was our third baseman. Ernie told me after a complete game I had to shake my catcher’s hand first.”
Drabek dominated the first month going 8-2, walking 31 and striking out 76 in 96 innings. In all he threw 158 innings without a setback.
The sons of big leaguers — Jose Cruz, Ed Sprague, Todd Stottlemyre and Robbie Alomar — vary on whether it is an advantage growing up around big-league clubhouses and taking batting practice and learning from pros or a disadvantage trying to live in the shadow cast by papa’s name.
“It was an advantage for me. How many guys have a former Cy Young Award winner as their personal pitching coach,” Drabek said. “As good as he was, he tells me not to be the next Doug Drabek, but to be the next Kyle Drabek.”
Older brother Justin Drabek wasn’t drafted, but pitched two seasons in the independent leagues. Papa helped out as the pitching coach.
Doug Drabek is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks at extended spring training and will be the pitching coach this summer with rookie-class Yakima.
“Doug is the salt of the earth. He may have a white-collar family, but he and his wife Kristy raised their kids blue-collar,” Cohen said. “First time I met Doug, former Cy Young winner, he’s running the weed-whacker around the perimeter of the field.”
Off the field, Cohen said he saw Kyle play table tennis using his iPod.
“Kyle’s hand-eye co-ordination is something,” he noted.
* * *
Drabek’s outing the other night in New Hampshire went like this:
Strike three in the dirt, the ball getting away from Brian Jeroloman, who picked it up and threw wide of first.
After a stolen base, Jeroloman threw late to third.
Then a single off the glove of first baseman Brian Cooper.
Instead of three outs, there were none out and a run in.
Drabek didn’t stomp like Jack Morris. He didn’t glare like Stieb. And didn’t kick the mound like a Little Leaguer.
He retired New Britain hitters without any further damage.
“Brian picked up the ball but it had rolled onto the grass which was wet from when the grounds crew watered the field,” Drabek said. “It wasn’t his fault.”
And in the sixth one outfielder dropped a ball, while another had a ball hit knee-high on the fence for a double.
“We field the ball, he pitches seven,” said manager Rivera.
“I figured the eighth,” said pitching coach Tom Signore.
Another start on the ladder which leads to the Rogers Centre.
* * *
The best game Drabek ever pitched?
The day after graduation, he pitched at Kelly Field in Carrollton, Tex., against Newman Smith High from Dallas in 2007.
A win advanced The Woodlands Highlanders to the state regional semifinals. With a fastball clocked at 97, Drabek struck out the side in five of his seven innings pitching a no-hit, 2-0 win.
“Now that,” Drabek says, “was my best game ever.”
In all, he struck out 19, breaking the school’s single-game record of 17.
“Easy,” Drabek said, “that’s where all the best athletes come from.”
* * *
“You know, you can’t win with choir boys, you need some brawlers,” Cohen said. “Kyle Drabek is infectious, he’s a microcosm of Roy Halladay. They both are so dialed in, both have so much fight in them. Halladay has been able to channel it better. Kyle is on his way.”
Drabek says his favourite singer is Tim McGraw of Delhi, La., also the son of an ex-major leaguer, Tug McGraw who won the World Series with the Phillies and the Mets.
McGraw’s hits include a tribute to his late father — Live Like You Were Dying — which goes like this:
“I was in my early 40s,
“With a lot of life before me,
“And a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
“I spent most of the next days,
“Looking at the x-rays,
“And talking ‘bout the options and talkin’ ‘bout sweet time.”
“I asked him when it sank in,
“That this might really be the real end?
“How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news?
“Man whatcha do?
“An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
“An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,
“To live like you were dyin’.”