The Seattle Mariners are in full-blown rebuilding mode. With aging super star Ichiro in the twilight of his career, and a roster of young players like Felix Hernandez, Dustin Ackley, and Jesus Montero, the franchise is undergoing a rapid transformation. Not only have they been restocking many positions at the major league level, but they also have an impressive collection of talent in the minor leagues fighting for recognition and opportunity. One of these prospects is pitcher Willy Kesler, who has been criminally underrated his first two professional seasons, but is poised for a major coming out in 2012.
The right-handed Kesler had a stellar career with Lamar Community College. As a sophomore in 2007 he had 103 strikeouts in 88 innings, with a 0.82 ERA and school record 10 complete games. From there he moved on to the University of New Mexico, where he continued pitching well when not hampered by injuries. He had Tommy John surgery in 2008, which robbed him of major chunks of that season and 2009. He returned from his rehab and impressed scouts enough that he was selected by the Mariners in the 18th round of the 2010 MLB Draft.
Ever since starting his professional career Kesler has been nothing short of sensational, pitching exclusively out of the bullpen. Relying on a fastball in the low 90’s and still developing his secondary pitches, Kesler has pitched at three different levels in two years, finishing 2011 in High-A. In 55 total games during those two seasons he has accumulated a 9-5 record and 2.21 ERA, with 16 saves. He also has 81 strikeouts in 89.1 innings. More information on his statistics is available here.
A baseball prospect could not ask for a better start to a career than what Kesler has produced. Not only has he moved rapidly through the minors, but he has performed well at each level and not tailed off as his competition has become more advanced. If he can keep up the same pace for one more year in the minors he will put himself in an excellent position to compete for a roster spot in Seattle. With the team’s bullpen having undergone a cycle of changes over of the past several seasons, there should be a great opportunity for a promising pitcher like Kesler.
Kesler is getting ready to head out to spring training, but before leaving he took the time to answer a few of my questions. He is also on Twitter, where he frequently interacts with his followers and gives a good idea of what the life of a professional ball player is like. He is a must-watch prospect for Seattle and baseball fans, so take a few moments to get to know him better.
Willy Kesler Interview:
Who were your favorite team and player growing up and why?: When I was growing up my favorite team was the Colorado Rockies and I liked Andres Galarraga. Now my favorite player is Nolan Ryan. I grew up in Denver, so they were the home town team. I’m not sure why I liked Galarraga. I just always cheered for him. I like Nolan Ryan because I want to be the same type of pitcher that he was.
Can you talk a little bit about your 2008 season at New Mexico where you had an appendectomy and Tommy John? How difficult was that to overcome?: I started the season off great. The third weekend, I hurt my arm, but the following weekend I still pitched. Then the fifth week of the season I had my appendectomy. In May I had my Tommy John. It was tough because everything that could go wrong that year did for me health-wise. Luckily I have a very close family and I was able to get over that big speed bump in my life.
Can you run through what your draft experience was like?: The draft experience was pretty awesome. I saw my name go across the tracker, then my phone started going off a lot. I’ve never experienced
anything like that before.
Since being drafted, how much contact do you typically have with staff from Seattle?: During spring training you tend to see the staff more often. During the season it’s harder with all of the different teams in the middle of their seasons.
What pitches do you throw, and which one is your strongest and which one needs the most work?: I throw a four-seam, two-seam, 12 to 6 curveball, and a circle change. Cleaning up my mechanics will help with cleaning up all of the pitches. I still need to continue working on my changeup. It’s a type of pitch that can always get better.
What coaches, managers, or instructors have been most instrumental to your professional career thus far?: To the day my baseball career is done I will always seek help from my little league coaches Steve Curry and Terry Smith. They have helped me get to where I am, so I’m not going to stop asking them now. Within pro ball, Rich Dorman has helped me the most. I have the changeup that I do because he has worked with me on it the most.
How difficult is it to maintain the life of a minor league player (financial, fatigue, relationships, etc…)?: It’s pretty tough all around, but I can’t complain too much being I get to wake up and play baseball every day. The goal is to be in Seattle, and then most of the hard times won’t be so hard.