Adam Ottavino may not be in the organization or the role forecasted for him when he was a first-round 2006 Draft pick, but after a Minor League career spent almost exclusively as a starter, the Colorado right-hander has quietly made himself into one of the most reliable bullpen arms in baseball.
The New York native is a member of a uncommon modern breed in professional baseball: Northeast lifers. Far from the hallowed prep and collegiate fields of Texas, Arizona and California, Ottavino grew up in Brooklyn, graduating from Berkeley Carroll School -- a private school in Park Slope that didn't have its own ballfield (the team trekked to Queens to play home games). Tampa Bay took notice, selecting Ottavino in the 30th round in 2003, but the righty opted for college ball.
Following three impressive seasons at Northeastern University in Boston -- where he still holds the career record for strikeouts (290) and the top two single-season strikeout marks (120 in 2006 and 106 in '05) -- Ottavino improved his Draft stock by 29 rounds and went to the Cardinals with the 30th overall pick in 2006, kicking off his climb to the Major Leagues.
"I kind of knew what [Minor League life] was going to be like going in because I had done my research and talked with a lot of other people," Ottavino said of his introduction to pro ball that summer with Class A Short Season State College. "I think I was a little more prepared because I had played summer ball in college. I played in the [New England Collegiate Baseball League] and also in Cape Cod. I was used to the playing every day and traveling all summer thing."
After posting a 2-2 record and a 3.14 ERA in six starts with the Spikes in his first Minor League stop, Ottavino jumped to Class A Quad Cities and went 2-3 with a 3.44 mark in eight Midwest League starts. The transition from amateur to pro went smoothly in the early years.
After a breakout season in 2007, during which Ottavino went 12-8 with a 3.08 ERA while earning midseason and postseason Florida State League All-Star honors, he appeared to be on the fast track to St. Louis. Ottavino would soon hit some hurdles, however.
The following season with Double-A Springfield, he posted an 8.78 ERA through his first seven starts in the Texas League.
"In '08, it was the first year that I ever really struggled in baseball," he said. "I was throwing horrible, my arm was hurting, I was far away from home. Honestly, I was very depressed that year. That really got to me over the course of the year, and I had a hard time getting out of that. I ended up finishing strong, so it carried me over into the next year, but then the next year, I started off 0-9 in Triple-A.
"I was always kind of battling my own expectations for myself coupled with the adjustments I was trying to make -- that the organization wanted me to make, that I knew I needed to make. Combine that with being far away from home, and something you never really expect is you do start to question a little bit, 'What am I doing this for?' Luckily for me, actually getting to that point was few and far between, maybe because I'm so passionate about playing."
Ottavino's 2008 turnaround dropped his ERA to 5.23 by season's end. The Cardinals rewarded him with a trip to the prestigious Arizona Fall League that year and an assignment to Triple-A Memphis in 2009. After those nine losses to open his first Pacific Coast League campaign, Ottavino again bounced back with seven wins in eight starts from July 10-Aug. 20.
"The biggest lesson is when you figure out that you have to be responsible for yourself," he said. "You have to become your own best coach. You're going to have lots of coaches. You're going to talk baseball with a lot of your teammates, but once you figure out yourself as a player and you can become your own best coach, that's how you're going to get the furthest."
Ottavino was a midseason and postseason All-Star in the Florida State League in 2007. (Jerry Hale/MiLB.com)
The big leagues and the bullpen
The righty's first 111 professional appearances came in a starting role. After eight outings to begin 2010 with Memphis, Ottavino was summoned to the big leagues for three Cardinals starts before being shifted to the bullpen for the first time since he was a senior at Northeastern. Rather than take the change in role as a slight in his two big league relief appearances, Ottavino viewed it as a new challenge to master.
"I think for some people it's probably a big change, but for me it really wasn't a big deal," he said. "I'm not a person who was set in my ways as a starter. I just really like to pitch. I just was excited to get in there no matter how I could. I struggled a lot of years in the Minors as a starter, so I really was open to relieving. I wasn't going to let it deter me when that finally happened. I just took it as, 'Maybe this will be something good for me.'"
First, though, it was back to Triple-A and back to the starter's role. Though he exceeded his rookie service limits during his 2010 stay with the Cards, Ottavino spent the second half of that campaign battling a shoulder injury and the spent all of 2011 in Memphis, making 26 appearances -- all but one of them starts. Through 62 Triple-A games with St. Louis, the righty adjusted not only on the mound, but to the energy around him.
"The big thing is everybody's kind of [ticked] off in Triple-A," he said. "All the hitters think they belong in the big leagues. All the pitchers think they belong in the big leagues. They're only one stop away, so when they're not, they're [ticked] off. The umpires think they should be up, so they're [ticked] off. Everybody's out for blood in Triple-A, so it becomes a very competitive atmosphere. For the first time in your life, you're playing with players much older than you. That atmosphere makes you grow up a lot, because now you're not just playing with kids your own age. You're playing with men and men that are not too happy to be there. That type of environment is totally different than Double-A."
The door to the big leagues opened completely for Ottavino in 2012. Waived by St. Louis for the second time, the then-27-year-old waited through a few days of professional limbo before Colorado claimed him on April 3.
"At the end of my Cardinal career, I was really just looking for an opportunity. I felt like I had turned a corner. I wanted to be a reliever at that point," he said. "As soon as I found out that I got claimed by Colorado and was headed out West, I was just really happy for the opportunity. I felt like it was actually a good fit for me just because I knew that pitchers had been a struggle for the Rockies. I knew there would be an opportunity for somebody, and I wanted to be that guy. I was very motivated, and I felt like it was a new chance for me to re-establish who I am out there. Thankfully, it's worked out really well."
Ottavino bade farewell to the Cardinals, leaving behind teammates such as Jon Jay, Lance Lynn and Chris Perez and coaches Derek Lilliquist and Blaise Ilsley, all of whom he credits with much of his development as a player and a person. Ottavino began his Rockies career with Triple-A Colorado Springs, but in mid-May, he made the jump to "The Show" for good.
Over the past three seasons, Ottavino has been arguably the most effective reliever in a Rockies bullpen traditionally known more for its struggles than its successes. The righty with the slider so good it inspired its own parody Twitter account has made at least 51 appearances in all three of his years with Colorado, pitching in a career-high 75 games in 2014. His work at Coors Field has also been stellar. In 92 career appearances in a nightmare environment for pitchers, Ottavino has gone 6-3 with a 3.46 ERA, 123 strikeouts against 37 walks, while allowing opponents just a .254 average.
Having traveled a long, and at times, tumultuous road through the Minor Leagues, Ottavino learned to trust one thing above all else while hunting his big league dreams -- himself. If given the opportunity to talk to the kid who came out of Northeastern, he'd make that clear.
"The first thing that I would remind myself is that I'm pretty good at pitching and that I should remember that I was drafted [in the first round] for a reason," he said. "If it were me, I'd be telling my younger self, 'Just worry about strategy. Just worry about the mental side. Stop trying to listen to everything that the coaches are trying to change. Stay true to myself.' I think that would have cut down on a lot of the tough times that I had."