Back on the Hill : Former Starter Clayton a Top Bullpen Prospect for Mariners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a desperate situation.

The Chattanooga Lookouts were hammering the Jacksonville Suns last August, and the Suns were out of pitchers. They needed a mop-up guy, someone to get through one inning as painlessly as possible.

Manager Marc Hill flipped through the file cards in his head. Hmmm, Craig Clayton. Didn't he used to be a pitcher?

Clayton, a third baseman, relished the chance. After all, he had been an All-American pitcher at Cal State Northridge.

"I threw that first pitch for a strike, and it all came back to me," said Clayton, a graduate of Loara High. "I set them down, 1-2-3."

From such random opportunities are career paths altered.

Clayton, a good-hit, no-power infielder, has moved onto a 90-m.p.h. track to the major leagues.

His performance as an emergency reliever impressed Mariner officials and reminded them of his pitching abilities. They sent him to the Arizona Instructional League to get a look and then placed him on the 40-man roster after getting an eyeful.

In a couple months, Clayton went from being a tomato can, asked to get three measly outs, to contender for a spot in the Mariner bullpen.

"I'm starting to realize that I could be in the big leagues as a pitcher," Clayton said. "As a third baseman, I might have kicked around the minor leagues for six or seven years, then maybe got a cup of coffee in the majors. I just love pitching again."

He is getting a refresher course in it. Clayton is back in Jacksonville, but his progress is being closely monitored in Seattle.

In fact, a spot in the Mariners' bullpen has all but been reserved by Manager Lou Piniella himself.

"He's a good-looking young pitcher, one of the most impressive pitchers in camp," Piniella said during spring training. "With a little improvement and experience, he's not far from pitching in Seattle."

Heady stuff for a guy who hadn't thrown a pitch in more than two years. But Clayton has reacquainted himself well. In fact, his fastball has been clocked in the 90s, almost a full 10 m.p.h. faster than when he was in college.

In 10 games, he has a 3.65 earned-run average and has struck out 13 batters in 12 1/3 innings. Clayton picked up his first professional save Saturday against Birmingham. He struck out Michael Jordan, who made a more drastic career change, to preserve a 9-7 victory.

This despite spending a week on the disabled list with tendinitis in his shoulder. A minor setback, but hardly one to dampen his enthusiasm.

"I tell you, I didn't know how much I missed pitching until I got back on the mound," he said.

Clayton's last stint as a pitcher was highly successful. He established himself as one of the best, and most versatile, players in Northridge history in three seasons. Clayton was third in the voting for Collegiate Baseball player of the year in 1991 after leading the Matadors to the West Regional II final as a junior.

Clayton was 14-5 with a 2.25 earned-run average that season. He also led the nation with 166 strikeouts and was named first-team All-American.

He won 27 games in two seasons as a pitcher. He helped the Matadors get to the NCAA Division II World Series final as a sophomore and put them within reach of the Division I series the next season. Clayton beat Fresno State, 6-2, on two days' rest to force a second game in the double-elimination regional.

"He had tremendous confidence on the mound," Northridge Coach Bill Kernen said. "As a sophomore, he faced Cal State Fullerton, which was one of the top teams in the nation. That didn't bother Craig. He threw a one-hitter, facing one batter over the minimum. I knew that day he was a tremendous pitcher."

The dilemma, if you can call it that, was Clayton was equally effective at the plate. He hit .397 at Northridge and played every position except catcher.

He had a 21-game hitting streak as a junior and also pitched 28 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run. So was he a pitcher who hit, or a hitter who pitched?

The Mariners would worry about that later and took Clayton in the sixth round of the 1991 draft.

"He was really a two-way prospect," said Ken Compton, the Mariners' West Coast supervisor for scouting. "The plan was to send him out as a hitter and see what he looked like. We felt we could always move him back to pitcher if it didn't work out."

Trouble was, it sort of worked.

Clayton hit well. In 1991, he hit .264 at Bellingham, the Mariners' lower Class-A team, and was bumped up to San Bernardino, where he hit .333. He hit .249 in 1992 but missed three months with after breaking an ankle.

Last season, Clayton was hitting .328 at Class-A Riverside with 32 runs batted in. He was selected to the California League all-star game but couldn't play because he was moved to double-A Jacksonville, where he hit .298.

"We might have moved him back to pitcher a couple years ago, but he kept hitting .300," Compton said.

But while Clayton made some progress, he also had some drawbacks as a third baseman. He didn't hit for power--only 10 home runs in three seasons--and he wasn't exactly a slick fielder.

"I just wasn't the prototype third baseman," Clayton said. "I was never going to hit 20 home runs and drive in 100 runs."

Still.

"He had good command of the bat," said Jim Beattie, the Mariners' director of player development.

So Clayton continued to tread water until the day the bottom fell out of Jacksonville's bullpen.

Down by 10 runs, Hill just wanted to get the game over.

"I didn't want to use up our pitching, and I knew Craig had a strong arm," Hill said.

He wasn't prepared for how strong it was.

"My pitching coach and I looked at each other and went, 'Whoa,' " Hill said.

Clayton made two more emergency appearances. He didn't give up a run in four innings. In his last game, he pitched one inning, striking out the side.

He also hit a three-run homer in his last at-bat to tie the score, but by then, reports about his arm strength were winging their way to Seattle.

"I don't know why I was throwing harder," Clayton said. "Maybe I matured. Maybe the years away from pitching rested my arm."

No matter the reason, one thing was clear. "When we saw that arm strength, we knew it was time for us to move him back to pitcher," Beattie said.

In the instructional league, Clayton was 2-0 with a 1.55 ERA and struck out 21 in 23 1/3 innings. The Mariners, fearing another team might draft him under Rule V, put Clayton on the 40-man roster.

He went to spring training, where he began to learn the subtleties of pitching.

Said Clayton: "The first game I pitched, we were sitting in the bullpen, and the guys were talking about this one hitter. The guy couldn't hit a breaking ball, but he he could crush a fastball. I get in the game, and this guy is the first batter. So I threw him a fastball, and he hit it out. I found out it was a mistake."

Despite that momentary setback, Clayton was impressive. In fact, he got a where-have-you-been reception from pitching coach Sammy Ellis.

"They made him a third baseman, for what reason I don't know," Ellis said during spring training. "After I saw that arm, I questioned it, but it wasn't my decision. I'm just happy we put him back on the mound."

As is Clayton. After all . . .

"They carry 11 pitchers on a team and only one third baseman," he said. "I like those odds better."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°