Phillies' No. 1 draft pick in 2007, Savery switches from pitcher to position player to try to save career

Posted: March 01, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Hitting a pitched baseball is supposed to be the single most-difficult athletic feat. So, if nothing else, Joe Savery has raised the degree of difficulty as he attempts an extreme makeover of his career.

The Phillies' No. 1 draft choice in 2007, a lefthander out of Rice whom team officials at the time likened to Cole Hamels, reported to the Carpenter Complex this past weekend listed among the position players instead of the pitchers.

It goes without saying that the 25-year-old didn't make this decision because of all the success he was having. "I'm a lot of things, but I like to think I'm not an idiot," he said.

Nobody needed to point out the writing on the dugout wall. After four professional seasons, he was 28-31 with a 4.29 earned run average. Last year he was sent to the bullpen at Triple A Lehigh Valley. The distance between Allentown and Philadelphia had never seemed so far.

So Savery approached the Phillies, asked for an honest assessment of where he stood and how he fit into the organization's plans. Probably didn't like the answers, but wasn't surprised by anything he heard, either. Didn't get upset. Knew something had to change.

"You start looking at your situation and the way things are going," he said. "I'd been moved to the 'pen, which was fine. But I really didn't have a role. So my concern for my career started to come up. More than anything, I feared the way things were going.

"If we're kind of turning the page then, hey, I think I can still play this game. I still want to be in baseball. I'm not ready to go home yet."

Savery has some credentials. In college, when he wasn't pitching he was used as a first baseman, outfielder or designated hitter. He batted .360 his junior year with the Owls.

After trading Sonny Jurgensen for Norm Snead, Eagles coach Joe Kuharich noted that swapping quarterbacks was "rare but not unusual." The same logic applies to baseball players converting from pitching to hitting.

The Yankees had pretty good luck turning a young lefthanded pitcher named George Ruth into an outfielder after they got him from the Red Sox, but the reality is that legitimate success stories aren't that common.

The most recent example would probably be Rick Ankiel, a promising pitching prospect for the Cardinals who mysteriously lost the ability to throw strikes.

Currently in camp with the Washington Nationals, Ankiel said the most difficult part is getting mind and body prepared to perform every day, something that's not a requirement for the more leisurely schedule starting pitchers have. After that, it's all about repetition.

"The biggest thing is just getting at-bats. Seeing pitches, seeing the offspeed pitches," Ankiel said. "As a pitcher, you're going to see fastballs. It's getting at-bats. You can take as much BP as you want, but that's not like getting an at-bat. And that just is what it is. You're going to have to get live, game-time at-bats. You've got to see what pitchers are doing. All that stuff combined. It is what you think it would be. It's a lot of work. It's a grind. But if you go where you want to go with it, it's all worth it in the end."

Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar, who oversees scouting and player development, said he couldn't pinpoint exactly how many at-bats a fair trial consists of. "I don't know. I wish I had that answer. But I have no idea. But I agree that you can take all the BP you want to, but he just hasn't had a chance. He's been a pitcher up until now. But we're going to give him as many games as we possibly can," he said.

Even Savery isn't sure how many at-bats it will take until he knows if he has a future as a hitter, but hopes he gets at least a full season to see what he can do. He has compared notes with the Astros' Brian Bogusevic, who was drafted as a pitcher in 2005, switched to the outfield in 2008 and was called up last September.

Ankiel made the switch in 2005 and it took him 2 1/2 years to make it to the majors.

Savery got a jump on the process last year with the IronPigs, getting 46 at-bats late in the season, hitting .348. He continued his re-education in the Florida Instructional League.

The pace will accelerate this week when the Phillies' minor league pitchers officially report on Friday with the rest of the squad due in by next Monday.

Savery hasn't entirely turned his back on pitching. And he said that, even if he had decided to stick with it full time, that he'd still be with the Phillies.

"I don't know what my role would be or where I'd be going," he said. "But one thing I'm sure of is that everybody roots for me in this organization. I have that going for me and I'm thankful for that. But at some point you really have to put up the numbers. I understand that."

Ankiel was asked if he had any messages for Savery.

"Good luck," he replied.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com.

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