MESA, Ariz. – The Atlanta Braves created an identity with their pitching, from a Hall of Fame core – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz – to a new generation that was supposed to include Arodys Vizcaino.
Pre-Biogenesis scandal Melky Cabrera headlined the Javier Vazquez trade with the New York Yankees in December 2009. But the Braves looked to the future by also acquiring Vizcaino, who had gotten a reported $800,000 bonus after signing with the Yankees as a teenager in the Dominican Republic.
“All you heard was he throws 100 mph and he’s the next one,” Eric Hinske said. “And then he got hurt.”
Hinske, the new Cubs first-base coach, remembered Vizcaino hitting 98, 99 and 100 mph out of the Braves bullpen when they played together in 2011. That season the 20-year-old right-hander rocketed through the system, going from Class-A Lynchburg to Double-A Mississippi to Triple-A Gwinnett to Atlanta.
Heading into the 2012 season, Baseball America ranked Vizcaino as Atlanta’s second-best prospect and the game’s No. 40 overall prospect. And then Dr. James Andrews did the Tommy John surgery late in spring training, making Vizcaino available in the Paul Maholm/Reed Johnson trade that summer.
After missing the last two seasons – and undergoing another elbow procedure last May – Vizcaino is hovering around triple digits again and showing what all the hype was about.
When was the last time you felt this good?
“I can’t remember, man. For real,” Vizcaino said.
The other day Vizcaino cracked up teammates by wearing a big ponytail wig around the room. He likes to dance to the music playing in the clubhouse. He appeared a little withdrawn when he hung around the big-league club last season, so his body language says something.
“I feel comfortable right now,” Vizcaino said. “No pain. Nothing in my arm. I feel happy. That’s why I’m dancing.”
General manager Jed Hoyer set the expectations when pitchers and catchers reported to Cubs Park last month, saying Vizcaino’s stuff is as good as anyone in camp – when he’s healthy.
That’s the biggest question mark for Vizcaino, who’s still only 23 years old. The Cubs understand they’ll have to manage his innings this season. They don’t want to project too far into the future. But if they can keep him healthy, they might have a potential future closer, or maybe even a front-end starter.
“We’re going to be bringing him along slowly,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “There’s just so much potential in that arm. He’s so excited. This guy wants to win a spot.
“We’ll see what happens with him. We just got to be very careful. He’s going to get ample rest in between side sessions. We’re not going to overdo it. We’ll watch his pitch count closely. But he’s been a pleasant, pleasant surprise this spring already.”
An organization that’s not exactly pitching-rich will need some luck and several breakthrough performances. Vizcaino took another small step by throwing a scoreless inning on Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers. But he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since Sept. 27, 2011, back when the Braves could still dream about his potential.
“He’s got great presence when he’s out on the mound,” Hinske said. “You know he’s about to throw hard. You know he wants to get you out. He works quick. He gets the ball, gets the sign and goes. (His) prospect status is through the roof, no doubt.”