When an amateur starting pitcher first joins the pro ranks, he dreams of reaching the big leagues as the next Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson.
Sometimes, though, things don't go according to plan and players have to scale down their dreams a touch.
So when the A's approached Brad Ziegler about becoming the next Chad Bradford, he jumped at the chance.
"I'm not concerned with what role I have," Ziegler said. "My No. 1 goal is to get to the big leagues. My No. 2 goal is to stay there. I don't care if it's as the bullpen catcher, if I can contribute to winning in Oakland, I'll do whatever they want me to do."
So Ziegler, soon to be 27 years old, headed to Arizona for instruction on how to be a submarining reliever. It might seem odd to ask a guy who just finished second in the hitter-friendly Texas League with a 3.37 ERA to become a relief pitcher, but the A's saw Ziegler as just another overhand right-hander, one who might do well in the Minors but might never stand out enough to have a big-league career.
They also saw a guy who occasionally changed his arm angle to give hitters a new look as a starter, so they thought he might take to dropping down even further pretty well. Once Ziegler got over the initial shock of no longer being a starter, he realized that the A's "thought it was the quickest route to the big leagues for me."
So far, so good.
Ziegler's not the typical Instructional League participant. On most days, he goes in, does his work and leaves. Every few days, he'll stick around and do some fielding drills just to stay in shape and be ready for when he gets to try out his new style in game action.
That opportunity came sooner than anyone could have anticipated. After spending a few days barely picking up a ball, just learning the mechanics, he's been doing a lot of work with a squishy ball. That allows him to get a good feel for the mechanics without putting as much stress on the arm. Things have progressed quickly from there, first throwing from flat ground, then off a mound. Late last week was the first time he tried to throw anything but a fastball, and he faced live hitters on Saturday and again on Monday in a simulated game.
"The more I'm doing it, the more comfortable I'm feeling with it," said Ziegler, who'll get into a real instructs game on Saturday. "Movement, location, keeping the ball down is key for a submariner. Offspeed pitches hopefully will come. They're not where I want them yet, but I'm starting to get the feel for it. Hopefully, things will continue to progress."
If they don't, Ziegler was only half-kidding about the bullpen catching gig. During offseasons, he works with high school pitchers and often gets behind the plate to help evaluate their stuff.
"I catch them a lot. You get a sense of what they can do, what they need, when you catch them," Ziegler said. "If it gets to the point where I'm not going to get to the big leagues, maybe I wouldn't be a bullpen catcher but a bullpen coach."
For now, though, he'll continue to hone his craft. If he becomes the "next Chad Bradford" he wouldn't complain, considering Bradford has 395 big-league games on his resume.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Over the years, the Angels have had some success targeting strong-armed position players who have reached a ceiling in the Minors and turning them into pitchers. The charter member of the "converted Hall of Fame" would be Troy Percival, a one-time catcher who went on to save 324 games in the big leagues.
On his way up is Jose Arredondo. The former shortstop made the switch to the mound in 2004 when it became clear in his first trip to the United States that he wouldn't hit enough to stay at that position. He was a California League All-Star, earned a midseason promotion to Double-A and is now on the 40-man roster.
Next up could be Warner Madrigal, who would be more in the Percival mold as a future reliever. Madrigal had some early offensive success, hitting .369 in the Pioneer League in 2003, but he reached his ceiling over the following two seasons -- both in the Midwest League. During the last offseason, when the Angels player development braintrust was in the Dominican Republic evaluating players, the idea of seeing what Madrigal's arm strength would look like on the mound first came up.
"We thought the time was right to explore it more seriously in Spring Training," Angels farm director Tony Reagins said. "That's when we took a harder look at it and decided to make the transition."
Madrigal picked up another 115 at-bats in the Midwest League, then was placed on the disabled list so the official transformation could take place. He resurfaced in the Rookie-level Arizona League, topping out at 97 mph. In 12 innings, he struck out 13, gave up 11 hits and saved five games. He's at instructs to learn how to do more than just blow hitters away -- something that may work now but won't if he moves up the ladder.
"He's learning how to pitch and not just throw the ball harder to get guys out," Reagins said. "He has a chance. The arm strength is definitely there. If you have that, you can get away with a few more mistakes. He just needs to figure out what he's doing on the mound. "
To that end, Madrigal has developed a slider and splitter. Both have the makings of good secondary pitches. The 22-year-old has embraced the switch, so it won't be from a lack of commitment if he can't get the hang of the breaking stuff. Once he finishes at instructs, he'll continue his tutorial at the Angels' complex in the Dominican Republic.
How Madrigal looks in Spring Training will determine where the Angels send him to start the 2007 season, with the key being finding a challenge without him being in over his head.
If he ever has a problem finding motivation, though, all he'll have to do is look at the history in the organization -- especially his countryman Arredondo -- to be inspired.
"(Arredondo) gave him the confidence that he can do the same thing," Reagins said. "As far as raw arm strength, Warner probably has more. He thinks he has a future long-term in this role. He's really excited about pitching."
San Francisco Giants
"I can't remember when we had a 16-year-old anywhere," Hiatt said of the Dominican teen. "He fits right in. He's got a rifle for an arm, good feet and an excellent swing. He hits the ball as far as anybody. If we take our time with him, we're going to have quite a player."
Villalona, who hails from La Romana, turned 16 in August and has yet to play at any level in the Giants organization. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he hasn't seemed out of place, despite his age and inexperience. In Tuesday's instructs game against an older White Sox club, he had one of the team's three hits.
"When I was 16, I was worrying about if I could get a date, not playing baseball at this level," Hiatt quipped. "It's remarkable a young man can come in like that, doesn't speak any English and be at home. He's got tremendous skills. He's going to be a fabulous player."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.