21-year-old 3rd Round pick Matt Purke hadn't pitched competitively since he'd been sophomore at Texas Christian University in 2011 when he made his first few Arizona Fall League appearances this past October. Problems with shoulder bursitis in his second year pitching for the TCU Horned Frogs limited Purke to just 52.2 IP last year after a 2010 season in which he'd gone (16-0) with 142 K's (10.99 K/9) and 34 BB (2.63 BB/9) in 20 games and 116.1 IP. The shoulder issues caused Purke's stock to fall considerably so that the '09 Texas Rangers' 1st Round pick (who failed to reach an agreement that year) was available when Washington's 3rd Round selection arrived last June. The Nats took Purke with the 93rd pick two years after he'd been the 14th overall selection in the Draft and the Nationals signed him to a 4-year/$4.15M major league deal.
The 6'4'', 180lb left-hander got knocked around early in Arizona, but he ended his AFL stint with four scoreless innings in relief in which he gave up just a walk and two hits. When his first trip to the so-called finishing school for the game's top prospects was over, Purke had walked three, K'd five and given up 12 hits and 11 runs (all earned) in 7.1 IP. "It was a tremendous opportunity out there," Purke told MASN's Bob Carpenter and FP Santangelo when they asked about the Arizona Fall League during the first Spring Training broadcast of the year last week.
"That was really my first dip into competition coming out of college," Purke said, "And I was able to learn a lot. Got hit around there a lot at the beginning part, which definitely taught me a lot, but I was able to kind of find myself and find my groove there towards the end. Those guys are the next-closest to the big leagues as you can get out there and it's a tough league and it's really a good place for a pitcher to really find [himself]." After two years at TCU and one run in the AFL, Purke was the top-ranked left-hander in the Nationals' organization on Baseball America's 2012 Top 10 Prospect list. Purke was also listed as the top lefty in the Nats' system by MLB.com's scouts when they released their list of the 2012 Nationals' top prospects.
MLB.com's write-up on Purke described him as, "... a southpaw with a plus fastball, a plus slider and a pretty good changeup," who needs to be healthy to justify the risk the Nationals took by gambling and giving the 3rd Round pick a well-above slot deal. The Nats, of course, were comfortable signing Purke because he took the unusual step of allowing the team to do an MRI arthrogram to satisfy any concerns they had about the condition of the pitcher's left shoulder. "It will all come down to his health," MLB's scouting report concluded, "If he’s the Purke of old, he’s a frontline starter in the making."
Since he signed a major league deal, Purke was in the Nationals' major league camp from the day pitchers and catchers reported this Spring. He made his first start of the year in an exhibition against Georgetown. Purke threw 3.0 scoreless against the Hoyas, striking out three, two of them looking and allowing just one hit to the collegiate competition.
NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman wrote after the start that Purke had been sharp. He'd been scheduled to throw 2.0 innings in his first outing of the Spring, but as Mr. Zuckerman wrote in an article entitled, "Purke, Rendon enjoy spring debuts", Purke was efficient and effective and, "... his pitch count was so low the Nationals sent him back out for the top of the third. He wound up throwing only 32 total pitches in three scoreless innings, 23 of them strikes." Purke, whose fastball was clocked between 91-93 mph, told the reporter he'd had a simple plan for his first start of the Spring. "'I was just focused on attacking hitters, throwing strikes and getting off the field as fast as possible,' he said."
Asked by MASN's Mr.'s Carpenter and Santangelo how things had changed since his days pitching at TCU, Purke told the hosts that the biggest difference he'd noticed was the size of the strike zone. "Honestly, the biggest difference," Purke said, "is that the strike zone shrinks as you go up. It's a lot different up here. You really have to focus on getting ahead, getting [ahead] early, because these hitters, if you get behind them, make you pay. So, you've got to really focus on getting strikes and getting quick outs so you don't get deep into counts and end up giving up a big one."
Purke made two appearances for the Nationals after the start against Georgetown. Last Wednesday the left-hander followed Jordan Zimmermann on the mound, giving up four hits (one a HR by Cards' IF Daniel Descalso) and one earned run in 2.0 IP in which he struck out two batters (St. Louis' outfielder Jon Jay and infielder Tyler Greene). This afternoon, Purke pitched after Zimmermann again, giving up a hit and a walk while striking out one batter in 1.1 IP. After recording the final out of the top of the fourth, Purke was the pitcher of record when the Nats took the lead in the bottom of the inning, and he pitched around a one-out walk and a two-out single in a scoreless fifth. Relievers Chad Durbin, Henry Rodriguez and Sean Burnett then combined for four scoreless innings in relief, and Purke earned his first Grapefruit League win.
When the Nationals announced the first Spring Training cuts of the year after the game, the 21-year-old lefty was among the first nine players trimmed from the roster. Purke (and fellow 2011 1st Round pick Anthony Rendon) were optioned to Class-A Potomac where they'll start the 2012 season after minor league camp wraps up. After Sammy Solis' elbow injury forced the 2010 2nd Round pick to have Tommy John surgery, Purke's the top-ranked active left-hander in the Nationals' organization heading into the 2012 campaign. Nats' GM Mike Rizzo described Purke as a, "... quick-to-the-big-leagues college-type of pitcher," last summer. Purke is starting his pro career at High-A Potomac, the next step if he has success there is Double-A Harrisburg. The Nationals took a gamble on Purke last June when they drafted him and last August when they signed the left-hander to a major league deal. So far it's looking like it was a good decision.