Wade-ing for love

How big a sample of stellar starting pitching does it take for a guy to prove he belongs in a Major League rotation?  Would nine starts in ’09 with a 3.69 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .210 opponents’ batting average suffice?  Or how about six September-October outings (just in time to be a fantasy playoff MVP) at a 3-0, 2.00 and 0.97 clip?  You would think with starting pitching at a premium, a performance like that would be enough to for a guy to land a big-league gig the following year. Nope. Not for Wade LeBlanc.

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Despite continued brilliance in Spring Training – a 4-0 record, 1.96 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 23 innings – the 25-year-old southpaw was curiously the odd man out of San Diego’s rotation to open 2010, and the Padres sent him to Triple-A Portland.  He was beaten out by Clayton Richard’s 4.41 ERA from 2009, as well as the still-raw stuff of 22-year-old phenom Matt Latos. Why? Maybe the Friars couldn’t get passed LeBlanc’s sub-90 mph fastball, or his lack of a flashy arsenal, or his low strikeout rate.  Not sure.

Well you couldn’t blame Wade for being angered by the disrespect, and he made sure that no one really likes him when he’s angry.  Early this month in Portland, the guy with a 6.18 career K/9 rate seemed to concentrate more on making guys whiff than pitching effectively.  LeBlanc fanned an impressive 15 batters in 10 Triple-A innings, but uncharacteristically allowed four earned runs in both his starts and compiled a bloated 7.20 ERA.  Think he was trying to make a point? Hey look! I can strike out over a batter per inning! Am I as interesting as Latos yet?

Thankfully, everyone was spared soon, as a spot in the Padres rotation opened up after Chris Young went on the DL with a shoulder injury. LeBlanc got the call and has pitched like a man determined to stick around.  He continued the unusual streak of Ks in his first start, making seven Diamondbacks whiff while allowing just one earned run over five innings.  Next, LeBlanc masterfully LeBlanked the Reds over six innings, scattering just three hits in a vintage victory on April 24th.  A fastball-slider-changeup pitcher, the southpaw consistently kept the Reds hitters off-balance with Tom Glavine-ish proficiency.

While he still may not have proven his value to San Diego, LeBlanc has proven to me over the last eight months that he’s a fine fantasy starter when granted the privilege of taking the mound in a Major League game.  He’ll get at least one more chance to plead his case before Young returns.  If he comes through again on April 28th when the Brewers come to town, the Padres brass will really have to think twice before yanking him from the rotation – especially considering the struggles of Latos.  If they finally come to their senses, snatch up Wade “The White” LeBlanc while you can.

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