When Robert Coello took the mound at McCoy Stadium last summer, his mother Lazara, brother Vincent, and nephew Vincent Jr. were often in attendance even though they live in Florida.
As a result, I wasn’t shocked when Robert told me that his family traveled to watch him pitch in winter ball this year.
“My family came to the Dominican Republic and we ended up baptizing my little nephew Xavier Coello,” Robert told me. “It was really fun to have everybody over there and have a little family get-together in another country. They did it around my schedule. We’re a very close family.”
(photos courtesy of Kelly O’Connor)
That family support helps explain how Coello endured an unusual baseball odyssey to make it to the big leagues. After being drafted by Cincinnati as a catcher, Robert became ill at his first spring training camp in 2005 and had a coughing fit that was so severe that he broke a rib. He was out of baseball for two full seasons before the Angels invited him to camp as a catcher in 2007. That’s where minor league pitching coach Pedro Borbon suggested that he become a pitcher.
After a stint in independent ball, the Red Sox signed him as a free agent before the 2009 season, and after throwing a mere 242 minor league innings – with 286 strikeouts – Robert took the mound at Fenway Park last September.
“When we first got him in spring training we really didn’t know what we had,” said Red Sox Director of Player Development Mike Hazen. “The scouts said that they thought he had a big league fastball, but any time you have a conversion candidate you really don’t know what you have. He really didn’t have many innings under his belt, but he went to (Single A) Salem two years ago and really dominated at that level. So we decided to push him last year, and when he started to do it again at (Double A) Portland, I think that’s what really opened our eyes. He still really needs to get the reps in because he missed some of that developmental time being a position player, but we think he has a bright future.”
The Red Sox high regard for Coello was obvious this off-season when they placed him on their 40-man roster and invited him to last week’s Rookie Development Program. The two-week program deals with issues on and off the field, and is reserved for Boston’s minor league prospects that are considered the most likely candidates to advance to the big leagues over the next two seasons.
“I was in winter ball when they invited me and I wasn’t too sure what it was about,” Coello said. “They told me how much I could learn even though I already got to the big leagues last year. The program is phenomenal and a great jump-start toward spring training. I feel really special that they invited me. It shows me that they think highly of me.”
The 26-year-old righty made 13 starts out of his 32 appearances between Portland and Pawtucket last year, but expects to spend this season in the bullpen. After going a combined 7-6 with a 3.86 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 107.1 IP, Coello is looking to strengthen his complimentary pitches to go with a swing-and-miss fastball.
“My main thing in winter ball was to develop my off-speed pitches – my curveball, change-up, and forkball,” Coello said. “I worked on my change-up with Ramon Martinez – Pedro’s brother. He was our pitching coach over there and we had a pretty good relationship. I’ve noticed a difference. I’m working really hard on it so that when I’m on the mound I can throw all of my pitches on any count to keep hitters off balance.”
Robert made six appearances for Boston last September and after a rough debut where he allowed two walks and three singles while only retiring one batter, Coello bounced back with five scoreless outings covering 5.1 IP.
“I got away from my strengths in that first outing, but after that, I came back and had some good outings,” Coello said.
“Where he got into trouble in the big leagues was when he didn’t throw the ball over the plate,” Hazen said. “That happens to most young guys. But once he settled in, he was really good. When he’s pounding the strike zone, the hitters really don’t square him up very well.”
It’s a quality that makes Coello a good bet to contribute in Boston at some point in 2011.
With his family in attendance, of course.
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