New on the 40: Wirfin Obispo

Late last Friday, the Atlanta Braves announced the addition of two 2013 Gwinnett Braves to their 40-man roster.  Left-hander Ryan Buchter and right-hander Wirfin Obispo, the back-end of the G-Braves’ bullpen for the bulk of the season, have both been added to Atlanta’s 40-man for the first time in their careers.

Today, the focus is on Obispo, the hard-throwing Dominican Republic native who first turned heads during Spring Training.  An impressive Cactus League run — 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA and eight strikeouts over six outings — earned him serious consideration for a bullpen spot in Atlanta, but Obispo wound up spending all of 2013 in Triple-A.  After a slow start, some minor adjustments on the mound brought him back strong, and he went 2-4 with a 3.53 ERA over an International League-leading 54 appearances.  The July trade of right-hander Cory Rasmus to the Los Angeles Angels thrust Obispo into the Gwinnett closer’s role, and it is there that he truly shined.  He converted nine of 11 save chances from mid June through September, posting a second-half ERA of 2.55.

While the Braves wait to see if Obispo will be next season’s version of David Carpenter, we look back on what has already been an interesting, challenging career for the former shortstop prospect.  Below is a feature story on Obispo written by Juan Dorado for the eighth issue of Tomahawk Talk last season.

Wirfin Obispo, picture by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves

Wirfin Obispo, picture by Karl Moore / Gwinnett Braves

The Journeys of Obispo

From the Dominican Summer League to the Japanese League and now finally in the U.S., right-hander Wirfin Obispo has been on an amazing journey

by Juan Dorado (published in Tomahawk Talk, July 18, 2013)

On the first week of July each year, the International signing period begins.  Major League teams scatter around the Caribbean Islands in search of the next great Latin-born player.  In 2002, a young shortstop from the Dominican Republic by the name of Wirfin Obispo was signed by the Boston Red Sox organization, and so began his well-traveled baseball career.

Nineteen years old at the time, Obispo was assigned to the Dominican Summer League Red Sox.  In 37 games, he hit .211 (24-for-114) with four doubles, one triple and five RBIs.  Despite being two-to-three years older than most players on his team and yet struggling at the plate, Boston decided to bring the right-handed hitting infielder back in 2003.  During the spring, however, he suffered a setback and went through his first real injury as a ballplayer.

“After I came back for my second season, I suffered a leg injury,” recalls Obispo.  “The Boston Red Sox organization didn’t think I could really play after that, so they decided to let me go.  Honestly, I don’t think it could have worked out any better.”

Obispo was unemployed, but not discouraged.  He spent the off-season rehabbing and getting back into shape for a winter workout with the Cincinnati Reds and International Scouting Director Johnny Almaraz.  While working out in front of Almaraz, the fleet-footed, strong-armed, 160-pound shortstop was asked if he had ever thought about pitching.  Even though he had spent his whole childhood and professional career as a shortstop, Obispo was open to the idea.

“In 2004, when I was working out for Cincinnati and Johnny Almaraz, he told me that he wanted to see me as a pitcher,” said Obispo.  “He looked at me as a shortstop (prospect) but then he asked if I would like to pitch.  I was glad to go out and pitch for him, so I went on the mound and he saw that I had a good fastball.  After that, he signed me, but this time as a pitcher.”

On January 23, 2004, with the support of Almaraz and the Cincinnati Reds organization, the right-hander signed as a minor league free agent.  Obispo spent the next three seasons as a pitcher for the Dominican Summer League Reds.  He excelled in the role, appearing in 47 games, 26 starts, and posting an 8-11 record with a 2.38 ERA.  The fireballer struck out 204 batters while walking only 58 during his rookie ball career.

Obispo was great in his first two stints in the DSL, but it would take until 2006 for the Reds to really take notice.  Now primarily a starter, he went 4-5 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 starts in the DSL, limiting hitters to a .168 batting average and striking out 93 in 79.1 innings.

The Reds decided that Obispo was ready to begin a professional career in the United States and invited him to minor league Spring Training in 2007.  Unfortunately, problems off the field prevented the emerging hurler from pitching in the U.S. for the first time.

Instead, Obispo found himself in another unfamiliar place, and 8,623 miles from his home in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.  With the help of Junior Noboa and Melvin Soto, professional scouts and assistants of the Reds organization, he was shipped off to Japan to play for the Yomiuri Giants.

“It was an incredible experience, one learns a lot over there,” said Obispo.  “It was a little uncomfortable at times.  Technology was fast moving and highly advanced, so it took a while to get acclimated with the environment, but once you get accustomed to it, it becomes like any other place.”

Obispo spent five seasons overseas, accumulating an 8-4 mark with a 4.13 ERA in 30 games between the Yomiuri Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters.  He battled injuries along the way, including a left hand injury suffered on a line-drive come-backer that severely limited his production in 2008.

When he returned to health in 2009, Obispo went 6-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 14 games, seven starts for the Giants.  During the Japanese League postseason, he won decisive games in both the Nippon Professional Baseball Climax Series and Japanese Championship Series, eventually defeating the Yu Darvish-led Nippon Ham Fighters in six games to claim the 2009 JL crown.

After his Japanese contract expired in 2011, Obispo’s desire to pitch in the United States earned him another try with the Reds organization.  Cincinnati signed him to a minor league contract on February 2, 2012.  He spent the season between Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville, hurling a combined 96.0 innings and posting a 5-3 record with a 3.00 ERA in 35 games.

Despite his familiarity with the Reds, Obispo opted to try his hand at free agency in the off-season and signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves.  An exclusive clause guaranteeing him an opportunity to pitch in Major League Spring Training was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I’m still very inexperienced playing baseball in the United states.  Including this season, I have only played two years stateside, so I was excited to participate in Spring Training with the Braves,” said Obispo.

Considered a long shot to make the Major League roster, Obispo still raised some eyebrows with a high-90′s fastball and a sharp breaking slider.  He dominated the Grapefruit League in his six appearances, tossing 5.0 shutout innings while giving up two hits and striking out eight.  In the end, his lack of experience prevented him from earning a spot in a deep Atlanta bullpen, and Obispo was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett.

Pitching for the G-Braves, Obispo was greeted rudely by International League opponents.  He went 0-1 with a 5.82 ERA in his first 18 games, a slide that was particularly aggravating given his successful spring.

“I wasn’t doing anything different from Spring Training, but it was like my head was getting in the way,” admitted Obispo.  “I was over-thinking everything, I was doing everything I did before but I was running into bad luck and letting it affect my head.”

Obispo didn’t let his early struggles keep him from improving, and with continuous hard work with pitching coach Marty Reed, he found an underlying problem with his preparation and delivery.”

“Coach Reed helped me out a lot.  He saw that I used to get loose and warm up from the side, but when I pitched in games I was upright, standing straight towards the plate.  He didn’t really force me to pitch from the side, but asked if I was more comfortable from there, so I made the adjustment and began pitching slightly turned.”

The quarter-turn has paid off.  From May 20 through June 27, Obispo went 14 outings, 17.2 innings without allowing a run.  He yielded just four hits and four walks while striking out 18 during that amazing span.  As of July 8, Obispo was 1-1 with a 2.01 ERA and three saves in his last 18 outings, including 22 strikeouts in 22.1 innings.  He posted a 0.81 WHIP and limited hitters to a .133 batting average in that time frame.

With two years under his belt and confidence steadily building on the mound, Obispo is certainly knocking on the Major League door, but he’s not worried about the logistics of finding his way to Atlanta.  Instead, he is concerned with doing his job on a nightly basis.

“I think I would be silly to say I didn’t want to get to the Majors soon, but I would like to finish the season healthy and pitch well wherever I am, that’s the main thing,” said Obispo.  “Like a teammate always told me, ‘I’m just an employee working hard until I get a promotion.’”

Later this week, we’ll focus on the other Braves’ 40-man addition, the left-handed reliever Ryan Buchter.

-DL

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