NEW BRITAIN — When Naugatuck native Pat Dean pitched a September game with the New Britain Rock Cats two seasons ago, he had hoped it wouldn’t be the last time he’d be with the Minnesota Twins’ Double-A affiliate.
“I’m excited,” Dean said of beginning this season at the highest level in his four-year professional career. “I had a little taste of it two years ago and I was hoping to get the chance last year but it didn’t work out. I’m really excited to be up here and I’m hoping to prove myself a little bit.”
Dean, a 2007 Naugatuck High graduate and 2010 third-round draft pick out of Boston College, made a rapid rise through the Twins’ farm system in 2011, his first full pro season. He started that year with the Single-A Beloit (Wisc.) Snappers, going 2-0 with a 2.86 ERA in eight starts, before moving to the Advanced-A Fort Myers (Fla.) Miracle.
Dean got the call-up to New Britain in the last week of the 2011 season and made one start, when he took a 4-1 loss against the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder. He gave up three runs, all in the first inning, and struck out three in six innings of work.
But the hits, runs and strikeouts aren’t what Dean most remembers about the Sept. 2, 2011, start.
“The biggest thing I took out of it was the support I had from Naugatuck,” said Dean, whose local draw helped account for a sellout crowd of 8,214. “I couldn’t believe how many people were here showing their support for me.”
Dean hoped he’d return to New Britain last season but he spent the entire year in Fort Myers, compiling a 10-8 record with a 3.99 ERA in a career-high 28 starts.
That stay didn’t discourage Dean, though. He kept in mind his young age — still 23 until May 25 — and used a full year of Advanced-A experience to continue honing his craft.
“I feel like I’m still right on pace for everything,” Dean said. “I feel like they’re not trying to rush me, which is a good thing. I still have a lot to learn as a pitcher. I’m taking it day by day, trying to learn something new.”
This offseason was an important one for Dean. He put on 20 pounds — “they’re happy about that,” he said — moved to New Jersey with his girlfriend, Kate, and teamed up with former Twins reliever Rob Delaney to put in extra work.
“He helped me a lot,” Dean said of Delaney, who will start this season with the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, Va. “He was right down the street from me. We’d work out together and he helped me fix a few things.”
A strong spring helped Dean land the No. 3 spot in the Rock Cats rotation. He’ll be the left-hander between highly regarded rightys Trevor May and Alex Meyer, both of whom were acquired over the offseason in trades involving major leaguers.
“Pat works fast and I like what I’ve seen in spring training,” Rock Cats manager Jeff Smith said. “He uses his defense and works both sides of the plate. I like the pace he works at and I like the fact that he’s a strike thrower. My challenge to the pitching staff is always how fast they can get the guys off the field so we can hit and score runs.”
Dean said he didn’t see any radar gun readings on him during the spring but estimated his fastball will sit in the 88-91 mph range. He’s focused on improving his slider to go with his curveball and changeup.
“I don’t really have overpowering stuff at all,” Dean said. “I’m right in the hitting speed so I have to command everything. They’re not the best pitches in the world but I feel like I’m able to throw them in any situation to any spot I want.”
Since graduating with as many accolades as any Naugatuck Valley League pitcher ever, Dean has slowly changed from a guy who threw it past everyone to one who rarely expects to do it.
“There are guys throwing 99 mph and it gets turned around,” Dean said. “I’m starting to learn how to really pitch the ball and work both sides of the plate, change speeds, change eye levels, and really learn to approach hitters instead of just going out there and throwing the ball.”
Dean made his season debut Saturday in Richmond, Va., allowing four earned runs on seven hits in four innings of work in a no decision. He will make a start in the Rock Cats’ first home series of the season this week against the Portland Sea Dogs, the Boston Red Sox’s affiliate. Dean is likely to start Thursday at 6:05 p.m., if the rotation holds.
New Britain is known as a hotspot from which the Twins directly pluck players to the big-league club. Smith, entering his fourth year as the Rock Cats manager, hopes to get rid of Dean and others in the rotation by September — in the most optimistic way, of course.
“A challenge to our starting pitchers is not only to get off to a good start in Double-A,” Smith said, “but to get after it and we’ll see if we can get them out of here by the end of the year. I think we have guys here who can help our team at the major-league level.”