On the one hand, Donnie Veal knows, it's flattering to be compared to Dontrelle Willis. After all, Willis has a Rookie of the Year Award on his resume, two All-Star Game appearances and was a Cy Young runner-up in just four years of big-league action. On the other, the 22-year-old top pitching prospect in the Cubs system knows, he's not getting compared to Willis simply because both are talented pitchers who got their start in Chicago's organization.
"Basically, we're both left-handed and black," Veal said. "That's all the similarities. It got on my nerves a little bit because I throw nothing like Dontrelle Willis. But to be compared to someone like that, who's first four years are among the best first four years in anyone's career, I'll take that comparison. I'm happy with it. Hopefully I'll be as good as he is, if not better, one day."
That day may come sooner than one would think. The 2005 second-round draft pick has had just one full season as a professional, but he jumped on the fast track in a hurry. He began the year in the Midwest League, but wouldn't be there for too long. After 14 starts, he had posted a 2.69 ERA and a .179 batting average against, striking out 86 in 73 2/3 innings. That earned him a promotion to the Florida State League.
Normally, it's understandable for a young pitcher to struggle after a promotion like that. There's at least a transition period, where he takes a little time to adjust to the higher level of competition. Someone forgot to give Veal that memo because he got better once he moved up to Daytona. Over 80 2/3 innings, he held FSL hitters to a .170 batting average against and had a 1.67 ERA. He finished sixth in all the Minors with 174 strikeouts in 154 1/3 combined innings.
"I would say somewhat it was a breakthrough for me," said Veal, who shared Cubs Minor League Player of the Year honors with Rich Hill. "I know what I can do. Last year, I had more confidence in myself, knowing I could pitch against these guys, that I put them on a pedestal they weren't on. After I got through that, it was just being myself and pitching.
"To a certain extent, it was a breakthrough because I was able to last and improve as the second half went on, which doesn't always happen. As far as just keeping that going this year, I just worked hard this offseason and I'm working to calm things down on the mound, throwing more strikes this year. I was successful last year, but I still had a lot of walks. I want to cut that down and get more early outs so I can stay in deeper into games."
The Cubs would be thrilled to hear Veal saying that, towing the party line. They've stressed strike-throwing as a skill they're emphasizing for all of their pitchers this spring. Veal, despite all of his dominance, walked 82 in 2006. For long-term success, he'll need to bring that number down. The first step in that process is the realization that he doesn't have to punch out every hitter he faces. It's not a lesson learned easily by young pitchers with overpowering stuff.
"I don't know who doesn't like to strike guys out. I love it," Veal said. "It's the greatest feeling. It's hard to get rid of. But in order to make the Major Leagues, it's what you have to do. I'll still get a few, I hope, but I hope to get more ground balls and make it easier for myself."
Veal wasn't so eager to buy into that program initially. When you're barely giving up a hit every two innings and striking out well over a batter an inning, it's hard to swallow when someone tells you to do something different. But he was taught a blunt lesson about how the ability to pitch deep into games directly correlates to big-league success.
"I see it more now," Veal said. "Early in the season, I was only going four or five innings and the coaches told me straight up, 'Look, guys pitching into the seventh and eighth are the guys getting paid. Those are the guys making it to the big leagues as starters. The guys who are throwing short are pitching in relief or aren't starting in the Major Leagues.'
"Even then, going later in the games, you're helping the team more. You're not using as many pitchers, the bullpen is fresh. It saves your arm. You feel better every start because you know you don't have to throw 100 pitches to strike out 10 guys. You can just throw 75 and get 30 ground balls and you're done and you get the W. That's all that matters."
So far this spring, it's clear Veal is working on putting that theory into practice. Throwing in the Cubs' mini-camp for Minor Leaguers, he's been extremely sharp, maintaining his delivery, keeping the ball down and consistently hitting spots.
"Donald Veal has really, really looked as good as adverstised," said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs director of player development and Latin American operations. "He's making the steps. He's starting to mature and his delivery is really repeating itself."
What Veal doesn't want to repeat is a level. All indications are that he won't have to, making the jump to Double-A Tennessee to start the season. Of course, being the competitor that he is, he wouldn't mind trying to push the envelope a little bit.
"I haven't really talked to anyone about it," Veal said. "That's my hope, at least start in Double-A. I hope I can make somebody make a tough decision. The plan is start in Double-A and we'll go from there."
Veal pauses, then added with a smile, as if he knew the Cubs were listening, "Throwing strikes is the key."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.