SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Matt Stites was a general studies major during his time at the University of Missouri, but he seems to know a thing or two about real estate — at least as it relates to locker position.
“This is a great place to chat with the guys,” Stites said about his location in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ locker room.
Stites’ temporary address at Salt River Fields couldn’t be more perfect for a 23-year-old trying to crack a big league roster for the first time.
Squeezed in the bottom left-hand corner of the room, the Festus, Mo. native finds himself surrounded on both sides by established bullpen arms like Addison Reed, Brad Ziegler, David Hernandez, J.J. Putz and Matt Reynolds. The selection might be just a coincidence — after all its determined by number — but for the impressionable right-hander, it represents an opportunity to listen and to learn.
“Brad is great,” Stites said. “You can pick his brain about anything, pitching, life or whatever. He’s a great guy. J.J. is the same way. Addison is the same way. They’ve been doing this for so long. They know what you’re going through. I’m just trying to ask them questions and learn from them. That’s what this is all about.”
To this point in his career, it would seem as though Stites, who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Ian Kennedy to the San Diego Padres, has already figured out plenty on his own.
Drafted by San Diego in the 17th round of the 2011 draft, Stites breezed his way through partial seasons in Rookie and Low-A ball to the tune of a 4-0 record with a 1.82 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and 39 strikeouts in 26 appearances.
The success didn’t stop there, though.
Stites pitched all of 2012 in Single-A Fort Wayne, recording a 2-0 record with 13 saves and a staggering ERA of 0.74. Another promotion last spring didn’t seem to slow him down, either, as the 5-foot-11 reliever again put up big numbers with Double-A San Antonio, including a career-high 14 saves and a WHIP of 0.86 in the Texas League.
Despite Stites’ rise through the Padres’ farm system, the prospect of acquiring Kennedy was too enticing for general manager Josh Byrnes to pass up. The deal seemed to work out for both sides, though, as Arizona acquired a left-handed arm in Joe Thatcher and a potential closer of the future in Stites.
That future, out least from the outside, appeared as if it might actually come sooner rather than later. In 2013, the D-backs played a 162-game version of reliever roulette, as inconsistency and injury forced everyone from Hernandez to Heath Bell to Putz and Ziegler into the ninth inning role.
The wheel may have finally stopped, however, this winter, as Arizona general manager Kevin Towers pulled the trigger on a deal with the Chicago White Sox to acquire Addison Reed, who finished seventh in the league with 40 saves last season.
Still, Stites doesn’t view Reed or Putz, who may also compete for the closer role this spring, as adversaries standing in the way of his rightful place in the bullpen. The way he sees it, the duo might be his best resource when it comes to making the team out of camp.
“The coaches know physically if you’re ready, mentally if you’re ready,” said Stites. “They know. They can hear how you talk. So, it’s not up to me. I’ve just got to go out there every day and try and get better as a person and as a player and learn from the other guys that are starting on the 25-man roster and will be here the whole year. That’s where I get better, listening and talking to guys.
“The older guys have been really receptive. I’m fortunate enough be in a group with J.J. and Addison. They’ve been doing it for awhile, and you see how they go about their business daily with PFPs (pitcher’s fielding practice) and (pick-offs). They don’t miss a ball. They don’t miss a pick. It’s a good learning experience.”
In addition to the advice he’s received from locker mates and throwing group partners, Stites admits that working with new pitching coach Mike Harkey has opened his eyes to flaws in his game — ones that may not have been exposed at the lower levels.
“I still need work,” said Stites. “I know I do. That’s why I’m here. I threw my live BP yesterday, and Harkey immediately talked to me and said, ‘You’re tipping your pitches.’ That just resonates with you, because if these guys can see it within three or four pitches, batters are going to see it immediately.
“That’s what I’m trying to get out of this. Get polished up, work hard as hard as I can here and talk to the guys to see if they see anything.”
One guy that has liked what he’s seen so far out of the still-maturating right-hander is manager Kirk Gibson.
“He’s thrown the ball well,” said Gibson. “We’ll start getting into live BP on Wednesday and Thursday, and then when the game starts we will get him in there.
“We’re starting it out kind of somewhat elementary, and then when we get into games that’s where we want to see if guys can implement what they’ve done so far. That’s not to say they have to do it that first game. Guys are going to be nervous and put more pressure on themselves. Again, we’re trying to take the pressure off themselves. There’s no pressure. It’s fun.”
It might all be fun and games this spring, but Stites the student remains all business. Standing at the door step of his big league dream, he understands that complacency must make way for critical evaluation and subsequent adjustments.
And in that sense, the highly-touted prospect might already be mature beyond his years.
“Secondary pitches, I don’t throw them for strikes very often,” Stites said critically. “Up here, that’s big. If you can’t throw secondary pitches for strikes, you’re going to get crushed. I know that, because guys talk about it all the time. First and foremost every year, I focus on my fastball command.
“If you can establish a fastball, it’s a great starting point. Secondary pitches, it’s not tough to bury one but it’s tough for me personally to throw it for a strike with good break.”
Luckily for Stites, he caught quite a break with his location off the field. Because, as he’s finding out, there are plenty of places he can turn to for help.