Robert Coello may be the most anonymous man on the Toronto Blue Jays roster. Indeed, his journey to the majors is one of the most circuitous on the team. So who is he? Let’s take a look at Coello’s story and what he can bring to the Blue Jays bullpen.
The Kansas City Royals drafted Robert Coello in the 46th round, 1353rd overall, out of Lake Region High School in central Florida in the 2003 draft. As a catcher. A high school student with options, Coello chose not to sign and instead attended Northwest Florida State College (then known as Okaloosa-Walton Junior College) before re-entering the draft in 2004. This time, the Cincinnati Reds selected Coello in the 20th round, 588th overall and got him to sign on the dotted line.
He began 2005 in extended spring training but fractured a rib in June and missed the rest of the season. A lost year.
The next spring, before Coello ha’d ever played a game for them, the Reds released him. His pro career looked like it could be over before it started. But Coello stayed in shape through the summer and hooked on with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in September. With one catch – they wanted to convert him into a pitcher. At the time, Coello was clocked throwing 90+ mph to the bases. So he didn’t lack for arm strength.
He finally got on the field late in 2007 with the short-season, rookie-level Arizona League Angels. The competition was mostly teenagers – but Coello was only beginning his own development and acquitted himself well. Pitching out of the bullpen, he threw in 20 games and went 1-1, 1.37 in 26.1 innings with a 26/7 SO/BB ratio. But the Angels elected not to keep him and Coello was again a free agent.
But he persevered.
Coello journeyed to the independent leagues, and across the border, playing in Canada in the Golden Baseball League for the Calgary Vipers. He got off to a rocky start and found himself traded to the cross-province Edmonton Cracker-Cats by midseason. He struggled with his control in Edmonton but frequently pitched out of trouble against marginal competition and finished the season with a 3-1, 3.29 line in 41 innings and a 47/24 SO/BB ratio across 32 games. He had good raw stuff but the kind of command issues to be expected from a pitcher with 60-odd innings of professional experience. Still, his performance was enough to catch the attention of the Boston Red Sox who signed him in November. That didn’t stop him from playing winter ball, and working as a starter, for the Algodoneros de Guasave. After years of false starts, and a year in virtual baseball exile, Coello signed with Boston and was headed back into organized ball.
He started the year with the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox, making one appearance, before beginning his expected assignment with the high-A Salem Red Sox of the Carolina League. He showed nasty strikeout stuff on the way to an excellent season: 33 games, 5-3, 2.05 in 66 innings with an 82/34 SO/BB rate and a 1.09 WHIP. The strikeout rate (11.2/9) was exceptional but he fought his control to an unsustainable (4.6/9) walk rate. Once again the positives easily outweighed the negatives for a guy in first year of full-season ball, still learning how to pitch. Opponents hit only .167 off him and he didn’t give up a run in his last ten outings, covering 18.2 IP, including three appearances in the playoffs. Coello flashed potential but needed more minor league time to harness his stuff.
Boston agreed and to begin 2010 assigned Coello to the AA Portland Sea Dogs. He worked as a swingman in 14 games, going 4-1, 3.32 in 43.1 IP and an impressive 51/14 SO/BB ratio. His 3.64 SO/BB ratio was a career best and the improved command earned him a promotion to Pawtucket. The PawSox desperately needed him and worked Coello hard. He pitched in 18 games en route to a 3-5 record and 4.22 ERA across 64 innings. His command slipped a bit, leading to a 79/30 SO/BB line but he was still striking guys out (11.1/9), though his walk rate (4.2/9) was slipping fast. Batters again struggled to make consistent contact against him (.192 BAA) but drove the ball when they did (10 HR allowed). Still, between the two levels, he’d managed to lead all Red Sox farmhands with 130 strikeouts and again finished his season on a high note while pitching out of the PawSox bullpen. In 9 relief outings his ERA was 1.40 (3 ER/19.1 IP) with a 24/9 SO/BB line.
His changeup was lacklustre and his curveball registered as a fringe-level, show-me pitch. But Coello could bring the heat, often touching 95 mph, and looked like he might have a future in the pen. In a neat twist, the future came quickly. In September, Boston rewarded his impressive minor league numbers and allowed him to realize a dream. He made his major league debut at home, against Tampa Bay, and got into 6 total games going, 0-0, 4.76 with a 5/5 SO/BB rate, holding opponents scoreless in 5 of 6 appearances. It was a dream season. But that would soon gives way to a harsher reality. The following February, just days before pitchers and catchers were to report for spring training, Boston signed relievers Alfredo Aceves and Dennys Reyes to bolster their bullpen, designating Coello for assignment to accommodate them. Ultimately, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for minor league utility guy Tony Thomas. Like that, Coello was a Cub. He would have to prove himself to a new organization – one with little investment in him compared to the Red Sox.
He did begin 2011 on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, assigned him to the AAA Iowa Cubs. He began the year as a starter but eventually became more of a swingman; sometimes starting games, sometimes finishing them. He piled up a 4-5 record and 6.52 ERA in the rotation – brutal numbers, even for the Pacific Coast League – but Chicago couldn’t afford to move him to the bullpen. They needed his innings. They were having the same problem in the majors and in May signed journeyman Rodrigo Lopez to bail out their limping rotation. Again, Coello found himself D’dFA to make room. This time, he cleared waivers and was outrighted to the AA Tennessee Smokies where he worked as a starter for 4 games, going 1-2, 3.00 in 21 innings with a 16/7 SO/BB ratio, fighting his way back to Iowa. He spent the balance of the season in AAA, pitching out of the bullpen full-time beginning in July. Like in 2010, the results were impressive – 19 appearances, a 1.01 ERA, a .149 BAA with 42 SO in 35.2 innings. Put together, he totalled 30 games, going 6-6, 4.45 in 95 innings with a 94/41 SO/BB ratio. By now, the book on Coello was out: Good stuff, real velocity, questionable command. He turned 27 during the offseason and, with the Cubs rebuilding, found himself a free agent again. His best shot at success was to catch on somewhere as a reliever and hope for an opportunity. He played winter ball in Venezuela and, in December, signed a minor league contract with the Blue Jays.
Toronto seemed a decent fit for Coello. Though the team had a host of relief options in the majors, many in the organization were familiar with Coello’s resume (manager John Farrell was the Red Sox pitching coach in 2010 and first base coach Torey Luvullo managed the PawSox the same year) and keen to tap into his arsenal. Coello also helped his cause by pitching well in spring training before heading to AAA Las Vegas to work as a reliever and spot starter. By now, he’d abandoned his fringe curve in favour of a hard slider. His forkball, called “funky” this year by Farrell, can also be effective. He’s been one of the 51s’ most reliable arms so far, pitching to a 4-1, 3.00 line in 42 IP with just 31 hits allowed and a 43/18 SO/BB ratio in 19 games. In May, the Blue Jays’ bullpen needed bailing out and he was added to the 40-man roster.
Coello’s journey to the show has followed a winding road through unconventional outposts. At 27, he now has the best opportunity of his career to stick in the majors for an extended run. The early returns are encouraging: 0-1, 3.60 in 5 innings with 8 strikeouts and 2 walks. The Blue Jays will likely fight to fill innings the rest of the season and, if Coello can continue his early success, it would surely help the team bridge some big middle innings. His ability to throw multiple frames is a big asset. And it doesn’t hurt that John Farrell’s already a fan. It’s not impossible to think he could even start in a pinch before the season’s over.
Coello can reach back and find plus velocity on his fastball – 95 at times, sitting at 92-93 – and there might still be a bit of development in his forkball and slider. Because his arm strength is combined with a funky delivery he still projects best as a middle or possibly late-inning reliever. First he’ll have to prove that he can use his stuff to consistently get major league hitters out. With their rotation decimated, the Jays are in survival mode now. For Coello, that means not all of his opportunities will be ideal. Same goes for Jesse Chavez, Aaron Laffey and Evan Crawford. But it’s a shot. I expect Coello will battle consistency at times, piling up strikeouts in stretches but probably walks, too. Look for him to get heavy usage the rest of the way, finishing in the majors, and possibly finishing with a run of success like he’s experienced in the minors. A line of 2-4, 4.75, 45 IP, 40/25 SO/BB seems right.
Robert Coello, RP
11/23/84 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-5 WT: 250
Bayonne, New Jersey College: Okaloosa-Walton College (Niceville, Florida)
Drafted by Cincinnati in the 20th round, 588th overall, of the 2004 MLB Amateur Draft.
Acquired: Signed as a free agent December 2011.
Contract Status: Not eligible for arbitration before 2016.
Service Time: 0.029