It wasn't easy for Kevin Pucetas to stand out in the South Atlantic League, let alone in the Augusta rotation.
The 23-year-old right-hander was part of a three-headed GreenJackets pitching monster that featured 16-game winner Benjamin Snyder and Adam Cowart (14 wins). But Pucetas' 15 wins, coupled with a South Atlantic League-leading 1.86 ERA and 104 strikeouts over 145 1/3 innings, gave him an edge to earn the MiLB.com Class A Starting Pitcher of the Year.
"Adam Cowart and Benjamin Snyder had terrific years," Pucetas said. "We had one of the better pitching staffs, one of the top three rotations in baseball. We wanted to be able to win a championship. All of us complement each other very well. There was some competition between us for numbers and stuff. It made it really fun, it wasn't overly serious -- just a little bit of ribbing."
Despite his good-natured rivalry with his teammates, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Pucetas established his own goals coming into the season. Despite having gone 7-1 in 15 starts for Class A Short-Season Salem-Keizer in 2006, the Spartansburg, S.C. native allowed 19 walks over the season and wanted to lower that number.
"This year, I really wanted to improve on walks," said Pucetas, who allowed 21 passes over 27 games. "I wanted to be in the teens. I came up a little short. In the bullpen [Augusta pitching coach] Ross Grimsley would set up wires and yarn to highlight the strike zone so I wouldn't leave stuff over the heart of the plate."
All of that work paid off, as he finished second in the SAL with a WHIP of 1.00 and fourth in wins. His ERA ranked first among all full-season starters in Minor League Baseball and his numbers across the board earned him South Atlantic League honors as Pitcher of the Week for July 9, Mid- and Postseason All-Star berths and the South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Pitcher award.
"It's pretty overwhelming," Pucetas said. "It's a tremendous honor. It really does motivate you, gives you some confidence. This is not a part-time gig."
That was not always his mindset, as he entered college as a 5-foot-10, 200-pound pitcher with a fastball that sat at about 78-81 MPH.
"I was really looking to play college ball to get my degree," he said. "You know, I wasn't Division I material. I was recruited by a Division II school, Limestone College. I was really a late bloomer when it came to physical stature, but I was very cerebral. All of a sudden, I had a growth spurt. At the end of my sophomore year, I realized that I could make a career of this."
His college career, in which he ranked second in career strikeouts (233) third in wins (17), and fourth in ERA (3.69), shutouts (two) and complete games (14) for the Saints, was enough for San Francisco to make Pucetas a 17th-round draft pick in 2006.
"This is a kid who pounces on hitters," said Bobby Evans, the Giants' director of player personnel. "He works fast, changes speeds and has good movement on his fastball. He works hard. He takes the game seriously and has fun with it. He's a guy that every manager would love to have on his ballclub."
Pucetas has an arsenal of pitches, what he calls a "standard mix" -- an 88-92 mph fastball, a curveball, a changeup and a slider, which until this year, he had as a "show-me" pitch.
"Now it helps to have an extra pitch they're not looking for," he said. "[The changeup and slider], those two help me out a lot, they help to set me up a lot."
Despite his growth and list of accomplishments from the season, Pucetas knows he has some work to put in before he can make the Major Leagues, but his statistics have already turned some heads in his direction.
"With the success he had in Augusta, he certainly has a chance of moving more quickly," Evans said. "You want to find a way to challenge him. It's certainly a possibility that he could move a little faster than some other guys. He's the right age to move more quickly."
Pucetas is taking some time to slow things down in the offseason. He is not playing winter baseball and instead is working out in Spartansburg at the Accelerated Sports Institute, owned by former Major Leaguer Darren Holmes and current Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz.
"It's nice to have something like this right in my backyard," Pucetas said. "I was gassed a little bit at the end of the season, so it's been all muscular, endurance and functional strength. But you're also always looking for the elusive few more mph. I just want to continue to develop as a prospect. Numbers aren't everything in this game, it's how you develop. I don't know if I'll be able to duplicate my numbers this year, but everybody likes to win."
He has done that, with a 22-5 record in 38 career Minor League starts, but what Pucetas is reaching for is big-game pitcher notoriety.
"The big names perform well," he said. "The guys that are the best shine under the brightest of lights, and that's something I truly believe. You want to be labeled as one of those guys, and I hope to earn that label."