How a trade and a season at Double-A jump-started Blake Treinen’s career

VIERA, Fla. - After a day filled with travel yesterday, the Nationals will hop back on the team charter buses today and make the trip to Lake Buena Vista to face the Braves, the second time in four days they’ve seen the reigning National League East champs.

Stephen Strasburg will get the ball for the Nats, making his first start of spring. A number of starting position players are scheduled to make the trip today, including Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Anthony Rendon.

While some relief pitchers - like Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen - have yet to get into a spring game, most either made their second appearance yesterday or are scheduled to over the next couple of days.

For right-hander Blake Treinen, that second spring appearance can’t come soon enough.

Treinen was hit around in his first big league spring training game on Saturday, allowing six hits and four runs with two strikeouts in an inning of work. That certainly wasn’t how the 25-year-old wanted to open his Grapefruit League campaign, but Treinen wasn’t helped any by a couple bloop hits and some sloppy team defense.

That appearance aside, Treinen had been one of the most impressive young arms in Nats camp through the first couple of weeks of spring. The fact that Treinen is even in big league camp this spring for the first time in his career is a bit of a surprise, especially given where the South Dakota native was this time last year.

Drafted by the Athletics in the seventh round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Treinen was traded to the Nationals last January in the three-team deal that sent Michael Morse to Oakland. Right-hander A.J. Cole was the big piece that the Nats received in return for Morse, but Treinen and lefty Ian Krol (who was shipped to the Tigers this offseason in the Doug Fister trade) also were included in the deal.

This came after Treinen had a frustrating 2012 season at the Athletics’ high Single-A affiliate in Stockton, posting a 4.37 ERA in 24 games (15 starts). He allowed more than 10 hits per nine innings and his confidence was sliding, but learned on Jan. 16 that he was being dealt to the Nats. It’d be safe to say the trade caught Treinen by surprise.

“I felt like I had a very subpar, mediocre year in Stockton,” Treinen said last week. “I wasn’t throwing hard, I wasn’t really showing command of my breaking ball. It was just hard to think that a team would be willing to pick me up in a trade. I was pretty comfortable with Oakland, but I knew I needed to make changes. At first, I was kind of bitter because I didn’t know how the whole trade process works. I just figured, I’m kind of a reject of the organization, getting thrown to someone else.

“But then talking to the organization and talking to the Nationals’ guys, it’s a good thing to be traded, especially if there’s a couple proven guys in the trade like Michael Morse and (catcher) John Jaso. It’s a good feeling knowing that a team is willing to give someone up for you. There’s bigger names in the trade. I get that I was the lesser guy, but I have something to prove.”

It didn’t take long for Treinen to realize that the trade would actually be a positive development for him in more ways than one. Not only was he getting a fresh start with a new organization and getting out of the hitter-friendly California League in which Stockton plays, but he was put under a new throwing program which he says helped him improve his velocity and develop a better feel for his pitches.

While in the A’s organization, Treinen would stretch out his arm by throwing from 120 feet and trying to keep the ball on a line. Once he came to the Nats and joined Double-A Harrisburg, then-Senators pitching coach (and now Triple-A Syracuse pitching coach) Paul Menhart had Treinen long-toss from much longer distances and stretch his arm out as far as it could go.

“When I first got here, the throwing program was totally different,” Treinen said. “Here, it was just nice and easy, stretch the ball out. As far as your arm allows you to go that day, just get everything lengthened out. ... In Oakland, they were just trying to help me, but it just changed me as a pitcher. I got away from who I was - just throwing the ball and letting it do what it does. When I came here, that’s all it was. Just stay through the ball, throw through the catcher.

“It’s good to see the results at a higher level when at high-A, I was very mediocre at best. So I was just happy. I think the whole outlook towards pitching in this organization is just more geared towards me.”

The results at Harrisburg were pretty impressive. In his first full year as a starter since being drafted, Treinen posted a 3.64 ERA in 118 2/3 innings. His hard sinker really started to play well, and his confidence returned.

“That league has some elite players right now,” Treinen said. “It’s a pretty tough league to throw in. My stuff stacked up there. I would get in trouble and I could still rely on my bread and butter, which is my sinker, and show those pitches for strikes. It was a huge confidence booster. I could go out there and compete with those guys daily. And as I progress, those are the guys I’m going to continue to throw against. So I know that my stuff can stack up. I know that I’m a better pitcher than I give myself credit for.”

Treinen’s performance last season led the Nats to invite him to big league camp this year, and he wowed coaches and talent evaluators within the organization during early bullpen sessions and live BP. His velocity (Treinen can reach the mid to upper 90s) and the movement on his sinker have led some to believe he could impact the Nats in the near future, and one talent evaluator told me he sees Treinen being a potentially dominant late-inning reliever at the big league level not too far down the road.

“He’s been outstanding,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said late last week. “Real good velocity with heavy sink. Has thrown some real good off-speed pitches. Just the bullpens and watching live hitting, it’s hard to really gauge anything by the swings, but he’s just got outstanding stuff. ... (The sinker’s) got real good movement, but it’s coming in 96, 97 (mph). And it’s heavy. So when it’s down, it doesn’t come off the bat. It hurts hands. The way he looks right now, he looks really good.”

There are still questions about Treinen, of course. Is he better suited as a starter or a reliever? Can his secondary pitches (he throws a slider and a changeup which is still a work in progress) do enough to complement his hard sinker? Can he turn the potential into something of substance?

We’ll have to wait and see. Treinen’s first game appearance this spring didn’t go the way he wanted it to, but it’s still early. The potential is there, Treinen just needs to continue to progress.

“When you try to judge somebody on bullpens or batting practice, it’s not usually a way to have job security,” McCatty joked. “But the stuff that shows up (for Treinen), in a game, will it play? Absolutely. But once they play that song, a lot of things go wrong. You know what song I’m talking about?”

What song is that, Cat?

“The national anthem,” McCatty said with a smile. “So, like I said, great stuff. What the mentality is of being out there, I’ve heard nothing but really good things. But you’ve got to see it. He’ll get a chance.”

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