06/09/10 12:02 AM ET
Late-rounder can develop on Yanks' watch
Pilots right-hander Varce flying high on Oppenheimer's radar
By Tim Britton / MLB.com
It's not a repetitive advertising campaign; it's how University of Portland head baseball coach Chris Sperry describes the arsenal of Zach Varce, the Pilots' ace selected by the Yankees in the 11th round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
That's because Varce's repertoire is broader than it is deep, containing four pitches he can throw to any hitter in any count. So although the 21-year-old may not yet possess a Major League-caliber pitch, he has the potential to one day throw a quartet of them.
"I can throw pretty much any pitch in any count, and that's what's really helped me keep guys off-balance," said Varce, who turned in a 5-2 record and a 3.48 ERA in 13 starts as a junior at Portland.
Those pitches include a fastball that lingers around 90 mph, but touches 93, along with a slider, changeup and split-finger.
With that diverse arsenal, it only made sense for Varce to make the transition from being the Pilots' closer to their Friday starter -- the treasured slot traditionally reserved for the staff ace. The adrenaline of the ninth inning was gone, but in its place was a renewed sense of comfort and a better feel for his pitches.
"He was a young guy that had some pretty good stuff and not a real good feel for how to use it necessarily, and he grew through two different roles," said Sperry. "He was successful both ways. He's done a wonderful job, and it's been fun to see him develop that way."
The transition from being a reliever back to being a starter wasn't necessarily a simple or fluid one for Varce, who split duties toward the end of last season with Portland a bit short on arms. Even though he had been a starter in high school, he knew it was a whole different ballgame in the West Coast Conference.
"As a closer, I'd come in and the pressure was on the hitters more than it was on me, so I could make them chase whatever I wanted," Varce said. "As a starter, even last year I started a couple of games, I'd throw some pitches and see they're not chasing it. This year, I had to learn to really spot up and make them hit my pitch. It was a learning experience. Last summer, I kind of learned how to start all over again. It came together pretty well, and I was happy with the numbers I put up."
So was Sperry, whose pride on Tuesday in seeing his pitcher drafted was mitigated by the likelihood he wouldn't get to coach him again.
Now the Yankees get to watch over his development, and Damon Oppenheimer, the team's vice president of scouting, is excited for that chance.
"He's got a real deceptive fastball. There's a swing-and-miss to it," said Oppenheimer. "He doesn't have overwhelming stuff, but he has deceptive stuff, and he's been a successful pitcher."
A native of Seattle, Varce grew up adoring Mariners teams that starred Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and, of course, Alex Rodriguez. But he hasn't exactly shown an aversion to pitching against hometown squads. Earlier this season, he had one of the most dominant starts in school history against Seattle University, striking out 14 in eight innings of one-run, four-hit ball.
And when he got the call from the Yankees after a long morning of hanging out on his deck on Tuesday, it felt just like a dream.
"I was ecstatic. I couldn't believe it," Varce said. "I was kind of taken aback that, 'Wow, this is actually happening. This process is actually going through and becoming a reality.'"
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.