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On-the-move Cardenas dominant in '11

Lynchburg reliever represents Braves well, traded to Pirates
October 25, 2011
If it feels good to be wanted, Eliecer Cardenas must feel great. At least that's how he pitched in 2011.

Cardenas, awarded the MiLBY for Best Class A Advanced Reliever, has been in three different Major League organizations in the last 10 months. But switching employers doesn't appear to affect his job performance. The 23-year-old right-hander fashioned a 0.79 ERA in 40 appearances out of the 'pen for Lynchburg, a Braves affiliate.

Preston Guilmet, Kinston

Cleveland prospect Preston Guilmet led all Class A Advanced relievers with 35 saves in dominating the Carolina League. He finished with a 2.16 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 58 1/3 frames and will also go down in history as Kinston's final closer (the team is relocating to Zebulon, N.C. in 2012). He allowed just four home runs in 52 outings and held batters to a .202 average. Fan voting results »
That didn't stop Cardenas from being shipped to Pittsburgh on Sept. 20, completing an Aug. 31 trade for big league outfielder Matt Diaz. Cardenas had arrived in Atlanta by way of Minnesota after being plucked in the the Triple-A phase of the December 2010 Rule 5 Draft. The Twins signed him as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in May 2006, four months past his 18th birthday.

"The Pirates are getting a pretty good arm," said Derek Botelho, Cardenas' pitching coach with the Hillcats. "He's a quality [prospect], but we got a Major League player for him. It shows the kind of value that he had, [being] a pitcher at the A-level."

Despite not being able to bring Cardenas to its instructional league due to an issue with the pitcher's work visa -- Cardenas was also unavailable to comment for this story -- Pittsburgh's brass is hopeful.

"When you move a guy like [Diaz], you're looking for Major League talent, and he's got a chance to be a Major Leaguer someday," Pirates director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway said. "It will be up to us to develop him and to him to take strides forward."

There were precursors to Cardenas' success. After four years of pitching in the Dominican Summer and Gulf Coast leagues, he won five of six decisions and accumulated a 3.69 ERA for the Twins' Class A affiliate, Beloit, in 2010. He overcame an out-of-whack 53-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the process.

Cardenas debuted with Lynchburg in April and received two callups to Double-A Mississippi, at the beginning and end of May, but struggled mightily. He yielded 14 runs -- nine earned -- and issued six free passes in three innings spanning five appearances. Despite limiting the opposition to one hit over 1 1/3 scoreless frames in his final two games there, he was reassigned swiftly.

"The glaring issue was his command and his walks per innings pitched," said Botelho, who worked with Cardenas during the spring and after his final demotion. "He had some mechanical problems."

The most significant change Cardenas made -- Botelho, M-Braves coach Mike Alvarez and roving pitching coordinator Dave Wallace all got their hands on him -- involved ditching the windup. Pitching in the stretch with the bases empty felt foreign at first. "He applied it," Botelho said. "He stuck it out."

The mechanical simplification allowed Cardenas to focus on locating his 91-to-93-mph fastball, which occasionally reaches 95. He combined that offering with a changeup and, in Botelho's vernacular, "a Major League slider."

"Getting him to trust his fastball and pitching off his fastball," Botelho said, "that increased the excellence of his slider."

"The time I saw him pitch," Broadway added, "his slider was in play. That right there gives him a chance to be something."

With the Hillcats, Cardenas would win four of his seven decisions and execute seven of his nine save chances. The righty also fanned 75 while walking 29 in 56 2/3 frames. He never allowed more than one earned run in an outing and was especially successful at his hometown ballpark, Calvin Falwell Field, where his ERA shrank to 0.27.

His cumulative ERA of 0.79 was the lowest among all Carolina League relievers with a minimum of 25 appearances; in fact, no peer finished with a mark sub-1.00. Furthermore, only the Cal League's Heath Hembree, as a member of the San Jose Giants, trumped Cardenas in the Class A Advanced ranks. Hembree finished with a 0.73 ERA in 26 games prior to his promotion to Double-A.

Lynchburg skipper Luis Salazar used Cardenas anywhere from the middle to late relief, often pairing him with Ryan Buchter (15 saves) to end ballgames. While he preferred to close, Cardenas was especially sharp in long relief: In his 14 outings of two or more innings, he went 2-0 and sported a 0.29 ERA.

Cardenas was at his absolute best, however, during a nine-game stretch beginning on July 16: He scattered four hits over 13 shutout innings and compiled a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 22-to-6.

"He went on a streak right there where he was commanding three pitches at will, and that made it tough on the hitters," Botelho said. "People were asking me down here, they thought his ERA was wrong.

"This is going to be a tough season to replicate."

Andrew Pentis is a contributor to Bryan Evans contributed to this report.