Rockies' Gardner emerging as effective reliever
At the 2011 non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies made an important trade for both clubs. Finding themselves at midseason with an opportunity to play postseason baseball, the Indians acquired right-handed starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies. In exchange, Cleveland sent catcher/first baseman Matt McBride and pitchers Joe Gardner, Alex White and Drew Pomeranz (included in August as the player to be named) to Colorado.
At the time of the transaction, many people focused on Jimenez, White and Pomeranz. White and Pomeranz were former first-round Draft picks --White was selected in 2009, Pomeranz the following June. Jimenez was viewed as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
The lesser-known Gardner, though, may become a late surprise in the trade. Gardner, now 25, is a very strong 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-handed power pitcher, and he is getting better with experience.
Gardner was an all-league baseball player at Milpitas High School, near San Jose, Calif. He then went to Ohlone Community College in Fremont, Calif., where he was an all-conference pitcher. Gardner had 118 strikeouts in two years at Ohlone.
Gardner also spent a summer pitching for the Peninsula Oilers of the Alaskan Summer League. He was outstanding, making nine starts and pitching to a 6-0 record and a 0.92 ERA. Gardner's effort helped confirm his reputation as a top-quality pitching prospect.
Gardner finished his college career as a junior at the University of California Santa Barbara. Again, he thrived on the mound. The Indians selected Gardner in the third round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. My introduction to Gardner came as he pitched at the Indians' Spring Training camps, as well as when he pitched for the Salt River Rafters as a member of the Rockies' contingent in the 2011 Arizona Fall League.
Gardner uses a three-quarter arm slot that at times turns into a sidearm delivery. Not always, though -- he is deceptive in the way he releases almost each pitch differently. Just a tweak here and a tweak there. The net result is a sinking fastball that induces lots of ground balls. Gardner's sinker is an ideal pitch to be used at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
There has been a recent change in Gardner's development program with the Rockies. Instead of continuing as a starting pitcher, as had been his role with Cleveland and after the trade to Colorado, Gardner is now pitching exclusively as a reliever.
As a reliever, Gardner's workload is shorter and much more targeted. The overall improvement in his game has come from him refining his changeup and slider. Gardner's improved strikeout rate this past season at Double-A Tulsa is indicative of better command of those secondary pitches. He is striking out an average of almost 10 hitters per game.
In my view, Gardner's 5.53 ERA this season at Tulsa is not indicative of his ability to be an effective reliever.
Gardner may still have to pass another test before he pitches for the big league club. He'll likely have to test his ability in the light air and high altitude of Triple-A Colorado Springs next season. That could best prepare Gardner for Coors.
Gardner's strong body and deceptive mechanics make him a candidate to help the Major League club in the future, and his sinking fastball could be his ticket to success.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.