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April 25, 2001
Following the 1995 season, Alan Benes was ranked by Baseball America as the top pitching prospect in the game. He had a solid rookie season for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996 and continued his development into one of the best young pitchers in the majors in 1997. Benes suffered a torn rotator cuff in August 1997, following a long string of high-pitch outings. He underwent surgery that September and had follow-up surgery to the same shoulder almost exactly a year later. Since then, Benes has been fighting an uphill battle to regain his old form.
Benes is currently with the Cardinals' Triple-A team, the Memphis Redbirds. He took time to speak with us recently before a game against the Tacoma Rainiers.
Baseball Prospectus: You were in the Cardinals last group of cuts out of spring training. Were you expecting to begin the season in Memphis?
Alan Benes: It was a surprise to me. I expected that if I didn't make the Cardinals as a starter that I would be in the bullpen. But those things happen. They felt that I needed some more work, and that's what I'm here for.
BP: I was surprised that you had options left.
AB: No, I actually have another one after this year because after I got to the big leagues, I was never sent down. Last year I used one, this is my second, and I still have one left.
BP: Do the Cardinals a want you to work on anything specific down here or do they just want you to build up arm strength?
AB: Arm strength and to work on being more consistent. It also gives me a chance to throw on a regular basis and continue to improve. Last year I was up and down as far as being effective. The biggest thing I need to do is learn how to use what I have now and be consistent with it.
BP: Thus far this season with Memphis you've put up some nice numbers, but you haven't worked very deep into the games. Is that by design?
AB: Coming out of spring training, the minor-league starters who are in minor-league camp are going to be restricted with their pitch count. I was the same way in that I was in the big-league camp the whole time but I didn't get to throw a ton. I never built up to 75 or 80 pitches. The most pitches I threw in spring training was about 40 or 45.
BP: Were you working out of the bullpen in spring training?
AB: No, I was mainly starting, but I was restricted. I never got to throw more than 40 or 45 pitches.
BP: It's been an extremely tough road back from the torn rotator cuff you suffered in 1997. What's the biggest difference between the Alan Benes who is pitching today and the one who took the mound four years ago?
AB: Obviously, I've lost a little. I don't have the overpowering stuff that I had at one time. For me, the biggest thing is learning to pitch with what I have now--changing speeds, moving the ball in and out. I have to learn to be effective that way instead of just going out there throwing 90-plus and getting by with stuff.
BP: Before the injury, you had established yourself as the staff ace, or at least you were right there along with your brother [Andy Benes] and Todd Stottlemyre. You were certainly being worked like a staff ace. Do you think there is any relationship between the workload you were carrying and the torn rotator cuff?
AB: No, I don't think so. Anytime you have an injury, you think a lot about that, but there was never any reason to think that I was pitching too much or throwing too many pitches. It was just one of those things that happened over time. Physically and mechanically the way I threw the ball, it was just a matter of time before I had some trouble. It's unfortunate, but it's part of the game.
BP: Have you significantly changed your mechanics since then?
AB: I think everybody tries to get better mechanically all the time; it's a constant battle. I haven't really changed too much, but I think I'm better mechanically than I used to be. I focus a lot more on that now than I used to. That's something you're always trying to get better with.
BP: When Rick Ankiel's pitch counts crept up to around 120 last year, his agent, Scott Boras, interceded and told the Cardinals to cut back to around 100, as stipulated in Ankiel's contract. How did you feel about that?
AB: It surprised me. I think it surprised everybody that his agent was coming in and telling the team how to use him. But, the reason for that was obviously that Boras was looking out for Rick's best interests and didn't want something unfortunate to happen. I think you try to limit all young kids to some extent, but I don't know about limiting the number of pitches and all that.
BP: On a philosophical level, do you think that a pitcher should be partially responsible for setting his own workload limits?
AB: I think a lot of that comes down to the individual player. Managers and coaches aren't out there pushing you by any means. They don't say, "you've got to go longer, you've got to throw more pitches, you've got to play more often." It is really a communication process between the individual player and the manager and coaches. They do a great job of talking to you, knowing how you feel, knowing when you need a day off and when you're feeling good. With pitchers, they watch you real closely. When you get tired they talk to you and will ask you if you've got another inning in you.
Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.