GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Maikel Cleto might have been a late addition to the White Sox but he has already been elevated to keeper status.
Claimed off waivers on Feb. 26, the hard-throwing right-hander has gone from a “project” with a big arm and upside to someone the White Sox are genuinely excited about.
The White Sox think they have realized previously untapped potential that consistently has made Cleto a top prospect since 2008 for both the Seattle Mariners and St. Louis Cardinals.
But the White Sox aren’t alone as scouts and Cleto himself think the reliever’s slightly altered mechanics have revitalized his career with improved command. That’s significant for a pitcher who enters the 2014 season with a professional WHIP of 1.51.
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“Right now I’m filled with a lot of confidence,” Cleto said through a translator. “I feel really good. We have worked on a few things and so far they have been really good to me.”
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was downright giddy when the club yanked Cleto off the waiver wire from the Kansas City Royals last month.
Based on what the team’s scouts reported, Hahn liked the potential for Cleto’s development with the White Sox because of the track records of pitching coach Don Cooper and bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen. Though projects are a hit-and-miss prospect, Hahn knew would be a find if the White sox properly developed him.
So far Hahn can’t complain.
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Cleto, whose fastball averaged 95.4 mph last season per fangraphs.com, has walked only two batters in 9 2/3 innings this spring and has a 0.93 ERA. That’s after he walked only two and struck out 13 in 9 2/3 inning of winter ball.
Cleto, who walked 14 batters in 14 1/3 innings the previous three springs, has quickly elevated enough for the White Sox to release veteran reliever Mitchell Boggs.
“(Cleto) is not a guy we want to lose at this point,” Hahn said. “He has made a lot of progress due to his hard work as well some stuff that (the coaches) have done with him. He’s really taken to it quickly so that decision was a fairly easy one in terms of not wanting to lose him.”
A pair of scouts understands Hahn’s confidence in a pitcher who was waived twice within the last nine months.
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Through minor adjustments with Cooper and Thigpen -- getting “down the hill better in his delivery” and different release points for his secondary pitches -- Cleto has discovered command he hasn’t had since he debuted for St. Louis in 2011.
“(Better delivery) has helped him throw strikes more consistently,” said one American League scout who like the quality of Cleto’s stuff but also warns the pitcher has a tendency to overlook other details, such as covering first base.
A National League scout likes how the right-hander’s slider complements the fastball. He doesn’t understand how Cleto was available.
“I like him. Power stuff with a hard, two-plane slider. … Too much power to let go.”
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Tyler Flowers has caught Cleto several times and likes the mix of his pitches and the way he has attacked the strike zone. The key for Cleto, Flowers said, is to continue attacking. If he does, the White Sox might have a steal on their hands.
“It’s surprising we were able to pick him up the way we did,” Flowers said. “Tip to your hat to Coop and Thiggy. … If he keeps doing what he’s doing I think he’s going to be a great addition.”
Cooper said he and Thigpen didn’t watch film of Cleto, who allowed 84 hits and walked 74 batters in 91 1/3 innings at Triple-A in 2013. Nor did they know him.
They just read reports, took a look at his first few bullpens and started to make minor adjustments.
Cooper isn’t surprised to hear Cleto say he feels more confident than he has been in the past.
“You would think a guy who can throw the ball 95, 96, 97, 98 miles an hour should have confidence,” Cooper said. “But I bet he’s saying it because he’s throwing it over the plate and feels better and better about that. When a guy sees himself doing better and better, that’s true confidence, because then he sees himself. It’s right there for him.”
Cleto sees a great opportunity with the White Sox. He said he tried to focus more on commanding pitches over the winter after struggling in 2013. The changes to his delivery have only aided that process.
But the most significant boost comes courtesy of the box score.
“The biggest thing is I feel that confidence because I have seen some results,” Cleto said. “Now I feel like I will continue to stay consistent with that.”