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Baseball / Sports

Marlins prospect turns misfortune to advantage

JUPITER, Fla. -- Elbow injuries have derailed many promising pitching careers.

Marlins prospect Nick Wittgren had one early in college that proved fortuitous rather than ruinous. It set him on a course that has the young right-hander on a rapid rise through the minor league system.

Ulnar nerve transfer surgery prior to his sophomore season at Purdue left the Lafayette, Indiana, native with insufficient time to get his arm in shape for starting. Coach Doug Schreiber decided to use him out of the bullpen, and Wittgren immediately took to the closer role with 12 saves in 28 relief appearances in 2011.i

"He told me at the end of the year, 'I kind of want to keep you back there.' I told him, 'Perfect, I want to be back there,' " Wittgren said. "I always say I kind of hate being injured, but then again, it was a blessing in disguise."

Wittgren hasn't had any arm trouble since then. Nor has he found reason to return to starting. Certainly not after being named as 2013 Minor League Reliever of the Year by MLiB.com.

From being selected in the ninth round of the 2012 draft -- the 132nd pitcher overall and fourth taken by the Marlins that year -- Wittgren has already climbed to ranking as the team's No. 20 prospect. The aptitude he has shown as a closer could have him leapfrogging many of those ahead of him to Miami.

Wittgren's dominance in the Arizona Fall League, where big-league clubs send their best prospects, certainly made an impression on Mike Hill, the Marlins' president of baseball operations.

In 13 appearances for the Glendale Desert Dogs, Wittgren allowed six hits in 13 2/3 innings and recorded three saves. What stood out were 19 strikeouts and only two walks.

"I watched him pitch and I watched him face some really good players, and it was an over-match," Hill said.

Wittgren isn't the classic hard-throwing closer type. With a fastball typically 92, 93 mph, he doesn't overpower hitters. He also doesn't mess around, keeping them off balance with impeccable command and location of his pitches.

The kid was a sabermetrics marvel in the minors last season with a miniscule WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 0.89. He allowed 42 hits and 10 walks in 54 1/3 innings for High-A Jupiter while striking out 59.

That led to 25 saves and an ERA of 0.83, and earned a late-season call-up to Double-A. In four appearances for Jacksonville, Wittgren didn't allow a hit or a walk.

"There were a ton of saves that he had that were 10 pitches or less," Jupiter pitching coach Joe Coleman said. "That's just his mode: Go out there and attack.

"His fastball is average, but he has so much life to it. There's enough deception, enough funkiness in the delivery, that it covers maybe the lack of velocity that people think he might have."

The other factor that made Wittgren's fastball more effective was improvement in his changeup, which he began utilizing more late last season and in the fall league.

Since doctors fixed his ulnar nerve, Wittgren has shown the nerve to pitch with the game on the line. Hill said it is too soon to project him as a closer in the majors, but "I know he's good, and I know I like him."

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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