One afternoon late last month in Goodyear, Ariz., Reds pitcher Mike Leake, making his first-ever spring training start, found himself staring down from the mound at Ken Griffey Jr., his boyhood idol. Leake—a spindly righthander with brown shaggy hair and a small scruff on his chin—is a command pitcher who paints the corners of the strike zone with the precision of a miniaturist. But on an 0-and-2 count against Griffey, he unfurled a slider that scudded inside and nailed the Mariners' future Hall of Famer on the right ankle. After the game, Leake's brother, Ryan, the pitching coach at UC San Diego, asked Mike if he lost control because he was facing a player whose posters covered the walls of his childhood room. "No way," Leake snapped. "I was trying to strike him out. I should have struck him out."
You don't force your way into a major league rotation at 22 years old, you don't become the 21st player in baseball history to skip the minor leagues altogether, unless you have some serious confidence and attitude—especially when you're 5'10" and 180 pounds and your fastball barely tops out in the low 90s. A year ago Leake was a junior at Arizona State, but on April 11 he took the mound against the Cubs at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and became the first pitcher in 21 years to make his big league debut as a starter without throwing a pitch in the minors. He allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings in the Reds' 3--1 win, and five days later he made another quality start, allowing three runs over seven innings in a one-run loss to the Pirates. The thing he'll most remember from his first week in the Show? "The seven walks against the Cubs," he says. "I've never walked that many—and don't plan to ever again."
At a time when prized pitching prospects are handled like Ming vases, the Reds defied convention when they made Leake—the eighth pick in last June's amateur draft—their fifth starter over lefthanders Travis Wood, the organization's minor league pitcher of the year in 2009, and Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban import Cincinnati signed for $30 million over five years. The rest of the baseball world clearly has a different philosophy when it comes to grooming young pitchers. On the day Leake made his historic start, No. 1 choice Stephen Strasburg grabbed the headlines (and caused a bottleneck outside Blair County Stadium, home of the Altoona [Pa.] Curve) by making his pro debut, with the Double A Harrisburg Senators. He dazzled with his high-90s heat, and while scouts and analysts are certain the 6'4", 220-pound missile thrower is ready to dominate big league hitters—"There's no question that based on talent, he's the Nationals' best starter right now," says Baseball America editor Jim Callis—Washington is keeping Strasburg bubble-wrapped in the minors. "I'm not a believer that a player can come from amateur baseball and step right into the majors," says general manager Mike Rizzo. "I've seen too many terrific prospects try and fail."
Other organizations have also resisted the temptation, from the Rangers (with lefthander Martin Perez) to the Rays (righthander Jeremy Hellickson) to the Rockies (lefties Christian Friedrich and Tyler Matzek) to the Giants (lefty Madison Bumgarner). But here now is Leake, whose fastball can barely keep pace with Strasburg's changeup, out to prove Rizzo and the nonbelievers wrong. "We know that history suggests that guys in his situation typically fail," says Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "The easy and safe thing would have been to let him go to Double A for 10 starts, then to Triple A for another 10, then maybe get him up here at the end of the season, and then say, O.K., we did it by the book. But the bottom line is we're trying to win, and we think this kid is ready."
Since the advent of the June draft, in 1965, nine starting pitchers before Mike Leake made the leap from amateur baseball straight to the majors (box, opposite page). The last to do so was Jim Abbott, who, fresh out of Michigan, went 12--12 with a 3.92 ERA for the Angels in 1989 and went on to a productive career. But there are also the horror stories—most notably Texas high school star David Clyde, who was out of the game within six years of his 1973 debut with the Rangers, his left arm ruined for good.
Angels scouting director Eddie Bane is on that list: A first-round pick in 1973, he went straight from Arizona State (like Leake) to the Twins. Bane knows how difficult that leap can be—he was 7--13 over three forgettable seasons—and is also aware that the stakes are much higher for clubs today than they were when he came up. "You're investing so much money with bonuses," Bane says, "you better err on the side of caution."
Ask Rizzo, who signed Strasburg to a record $15 million contract last August, what his prized prospect needs to work on in the minors, and he offers a lengthy list: throwing from the stretch, holding runners on, not rushing to the plate, hitting, bunting, fielding off the mound. Most believe Strasburg will be called up in June; starting his major league service time then will delay his eligibility for arbitration and free agency until 2013 and 2016, respectively. Rizzo knows keeping Strasburg on the farm looks like a purely financial decision—the Nats could save $18 million over the next six years—but that has "little or nothing to do with my decision," he says. "Other people have said the ticket revenues we'll make by bringing him to the majors will offset [the amount the Nats would have to pay him]. The bottom line is, we don't think he's ready yet."
"I'm sure they have someone calculating the exact minute he won't be eligible for arbitration," says Callis. "But you also have to consider that Strasburg threw [fewer than] 120 innings last year. It makes sense for him to throw 50 innings in the minors, another 100 in the big leagues, and then have him shut down in September. Why risk it when you're a team that has no chance to win the division? I think they're doing the right thing."
Like the Nationals, the Reds felt their young flamethrower needed seasoning: They sent Chapman, who signed in January, to Triple A Louisville to start the season. "It was more important for Aroldis to get his feet on the ground," says Cincinnati G.M. Walt Jocketty. "In addition to learning the nuances of the National League game, he has the cultural differences he has to get used to as well. At this point Leake has better command of his pitches. He's a better hitter, he fields his position better. If we had sent Leake down with Aroldis, I just don't know what we would have told him to work on."
Strasburg was widely considered the best prospect in last June's draft, but Leake, who was 16--1 with a 1.71 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 142 innings at Arizona State in 2009, may have had a better season than Strasburg, who was 13--1 with a 1.32 ERA while pitching for San Diego State in the Mountain West, an inferior conference to the Pac-10. Leake, who weighed 160 pounds as a freshman out of Fallbrook (Calif.) High, is accustomed to being overlooked. "I've always found it kind of funny that 5'10" guys don't get the same look," he says. "It kind of feeds the fires for me. It motivates me."