By Todd Devlin (@ToddDevlin)
Ask and you shall receive.
It may not have played out quite that simply when reliever Chris Leroux requested a chance to start last year at triple-A Indianapolis, but initially having the request denied by Pirates management, the 28-year-old ultimately got his wish.
And he didn’t disappoint.
After joining Indy’s rotation in July following a return from the disabled list, the right-hander went 4-0 with a 3.11 ERA in seven starts, striking out 56 over 63.2 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .222 average.
It was an impressive showing for a pitcher who had lasted started in the minors in 2006, his first year as a pro. Since then, all 273 of Leroux’s appearances (212 in the minors and 61 in the majors) had come out of the bullpen.
"I’m not quite sure what my future holds, but starting is something I enjoy," said Leroux, a Mississauga, ON native. "Having the ability to start and relieve is not something many guys can do, so it’s certainly a positive thing in my eyes, and I’m sure in the Pirates eyes."
As it turns out, it’s a positive development for Team Canada as well. Thanks to his versatility, Leroux has been tabbed by national team director Greg Hamilton to serve as a starter in March’s World Baseball Classic.
"I’m extremely honoured to get the opportunity," Leroux said. "(Hamilton) hasn’t given me any indication as to what game I’ll be pitching, but I’ll be ready for whatever team I’m up against and continue to show the baseball world I’m not just a reliever."
The right-hander will serve a valuable role for a Canadian squad that will be without the services of the country’s two best starters, Ryan Dempster and Scott Diamond.
But despite their absence, Leroux remains confident in Canada’s chances this spring.
"I know people are saying our rotation is thin, but as long as we can get through four or five innings and hand the ball off to our strong bullpen, our chances of winning skyrocket," he said. "And our lineup is extremely talented."
Besides helping his country on the game’s biggest international stage, Leroux is also looking to continue impressing Pirates management heading into the 2013 season – one he hopes to spend entirely with the big club. The 28-year-old was all but certain to make his first opening day roster last spring, but an injury stopped that from happening. On the final day of camp, he tore his pectoralis muscle on a pitch to Carlos Ruiz.
The injury proved costly.
It landed Leroux on the 60-day disabled list and he missed half the season. It also put a halt to his progression towards becoming a full-time big-leaguer.
Since joining the Pirates in 2010 after being claimed off waivers, Leroux — a former seventh-round draft pick by the Florida Marlins — had been enjoying increasing success thanks to mechanical changes he made with the help of former Pirates pitching coordinator Jim Benedict.
"Jim and I worked a lot on my arm slot, my deception and my slider," Leroux said. "All of those things, along with the confidence that stemmed from a lot of success in both the majors and minors, helped me be consistent the last couple of seasons."
The changes were partially prompted by Leroux himself, who realized during his first call up to Florida that his strategy of throwing as hard as he could, straight over the top wasn’t going to work against major league hitters – even if he was bringing it in the mid-to-upper 90s.
The righty altered his arm slot to more of a three-quarter release, and adopted a body turn similar to A.J. Burnett’s. A change to his slider led to more swings and misses. The results were immediate.
After being promoted to Pittsburgh in July, Leroux made 23 appearances out of the bullpen posting a 2.88 ERA, while striking out 24 in 25 innings of work.
"That was definitely where I proved I belonged in the big leagues," said Leroux, who was used mainly in close games down the stretch. "I know I’m a major league pitcher and I know (the Pirates) know it. It’s just a matter of staying healthy at this point."
Following the 2011 season, Leroux pitched in the Dominican Winter League as a starter where the Pirates wanted him to work on his slider and changeup. He did so, and had success in a starting capacity. He returned to camp as a reliever last spring before being sidelined.
But because there was no spot for him on the big-league roster when he returned from the disabled list, Leroux had to clear waivers before being sent down to triple-A Indianapolis.
"We were shocked when he cleared waivers," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "When he cleared, he talked about wanting to be extended again. He was so effective as we extended him that we decided to start him."
Huntington added he’s not entirely against the idea of starting Leroux, who was a catcher in college. But Huntington also believes the Canadian may prove most valuable as a reliever.
"We’re not saying, ‘no, he can’t do it,’ but his best role to help us may be back in that bullpen," Huntington said.
Leroux has had success in that capacity for the Pirates, and despite his desire to start, the right-hander says he’s willing to help the big club in any role.
"I want to be the best at whatever it is the Pirates throw me into," he said.
But before the right-hander tries to crack his first opening day roster this spring, Team Canada will throw him into a starting role when they take the field in Arizona for the WBC.
The 28-year-old says he couldn’t be more excited.
"Putting on the Canadian jersey is something I’ve always been proud of doing," said Leroux, whose highlight from the 2009 WBC was getting Canada out of a sixth-inning jam against Team USA to keep the game within reach.
"It’s always been hard for me to turn down an invitation from Greg (Hamilton). Who knows when I’ll be able to do it again?"