With 'pen struggling, D-backs draft closer
James Madison's Munson selected in fourth round
PHOENIX -- In case word of the D-backs' bullpen struggles hasn't reached you, here are three statistics to consider: 33 home runs allowed, 7.19 ERA and 11 blown saves. Through 58 games, all Major League worsts.
While James Madison University closer Kevin Munson isn't yet officially a member of Arizona's organization -- and he wasn't a reactionary acquisition -- the D-backs' fourth-round selection (121st overall) in Tuesday's portion of the First-Year Player Draft is officially on his way to helping out.
While wary of putting a timetable on Munson's Major League arrival -- college relievers tend to move quickly -- D-backs scouting director Tom Allison said, "We do think that he has very solid stuff that fits toward the end of a Major League game."
Stuff as in a 93-94-mph fastball that's backed up with a slithering slider.
Munson said the D-backs were one of the final teams he met with just as his junior season at JMU was nearing its end in mid-May. He admitted to knowing very little about the organization, including the whereabouts of its Minor League teams. (Anywhere from Missoula, Mont., to Mobile, Ala., and Reno, Nev., by the way.)
"A little nerve-racking, but when you hear your name called, it all goes away pretty quick," said Munson, a third-team All-American who was projected to be drafted between rounds two and four. "I'll learn a lot about them in the next couple of weeks."
And the D-backs will learn a lot about him, too.
Catching on as a pitcher
Munson played behind the plate, not in front of it, until his senior year at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Va. When his American Legion team ran out of pitchers at a district tournament, he volunteered to toe the rubber. By the time he showed up for winter camp at JMU prior to his freshman season in 2007, he was being pushed as a pitcher.
JMU skipper Spanky McFarland liked what he saw almost immediately. As a teen enduring his first taste of collegiate competition, Munson went 2-0 with four saves and a 2.84 ERA in 31 games.
Munson actually credits having a fresh arm to not pitching at the prep level. He also said that throwing as a catcher in high school shortened his arm slot as a pitcher.
"I liked to hit a lot in high school," Munson said, "but I was happy to work things out on the mound [in college]."
And when he started throwing his heater in the 90-mph range, he realized playing professionally wasn't, so to speak, out of the ballpark.
"I knew I had a shot," he said.
Starting to relieve
Allison said Munson wasn't sharp the lone time he saw his eventual draftee in person. But the scouting director relied on four of the other evaluators on his staff, who each vouched for Munson.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander mowed down opposing batters -- and became JMU's all-time saves leader (23) -- by employing his fastball and breaking ball. His third offering, a changeup, was rarely utilized and only against left-handed hitters.
While Munson and McFarland believe the former could develop into a starting pitcher -- many of his saves were three to four innings long and he once threw 82 pitches in one outing -- Allison implied he's more suited for the bullpen.
"We saw him in a relieving role, and we see him developing there," said the scouting director, who mentioned recent D-backs selections of collegiate closer prospects Daniel Schlereth (2008), Bryan Shaw '08) and Daniel Stange ('06) as a comparison. "This guy is a bulldog on the mound; he's going to come right at you."
While confirming that notion, those around JMU contend there's another side to Munson. This past season, he often wore an Amar'e Stoudemire jersey -- it was "outrageously priced" at a discount store -- and "rocked it" on the team bus to and from road games. Stoudemire, of course, plays for the NBA's Suns, which hail from Arizona. To complete the ensemble, he wore a headband that he called "old school."
"He's kind of a joker, a prankster," McFarland said with a laugh, "but when he gets the ball in his hand -- you can see him about the sixth inning -- he'll start circling like a shark."
Andrew Pentis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.