Welker not household name, but there's hope

28 days until opening day
March 8, 2012 12:00 am
  • Duke Welker works in a 'B' game Wednesday morning.
    Duke Welker works in a 'B' game Wednesday morning.
  • Jeff Karstens pitched three scoreless innings Wednesday against Toronto in Bradenton, Fla.
    Jeff Karstens pitched three scoreless innings Wednesday against Toronto in Bradenton, Fla.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- In spring training, major league players at Pirates camp get names on the back of their jerseys. The minor leaguers are just numbers.

This time last year, pitcher Duke Welker was one the nameless masses clopping their cleats around Pirate City, but he spent the past year making a name for himself in the Pirates organization.

Welker was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster this offseason, having appeared in eight games above Class A in a five-year minor league career. But, at 6 feet 7 with a 96 mph fastball, Welker showed enough progress that the Pirates' front office wanted to protect him from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster.

"He was an aggressive protect because we didn't want to lose that type of arm," general manager Neal Huntington said.

As a 40-man roster member, Welker is part of the Pirates' major league camp for the first time.

Welker, 26, was the Pirates second-round pick in the 2007 draft -- the third time Welker had been drafted. But it wasn't until last season with the high-A Bradenton Marauders that Welker started to turn his skills into consistent success.

In 36 appearances, he recorded a 2.25 ERA and earned a promotion to Class AA Altoona. A couple months later, he took a call from assistant general manager Kyle Stark, telling him he had been added to the 40-man roster.

"It's kind of like when I was drafted a little bit," Welker said.

"You kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. You just go, 'All right, somebody recognized what I feel like I've been working toward.' "

Even at 26, Huntington said, there is a lot of untapped potential in Welker. The key is harnessing his skills and honing his talent.

"If he can continue to take those steps forward, it doesn't matter when you get there," Huntington said. "Especially with the stuff that he has, in that position, relievers tend to come later than most of the other positions. He's still got a lot of bullets left in that arm."

First Published 2012-03-07 23:14:23

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