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Red Sox pitcher Clayton Mortensen, acquired for Marco Scutaro, out to prove his worth

02.21.12 at 9:53 am ET
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The Red Sox acquired right-hander Clayton Mortensen from the Rockies. (AP)

FORT MYERS, Fla. — For the last month, it was a line of thinking that Clayton Mortensen heard many times. The Red Sox moved Marco Scutaro in a salary dump.

The Sox just wanted to shed his contract from their payroll, and were content to trade a starting shortstop for nothing simply to get salary relief. The so-called “nothing” in question is Mortensen, the pitcher whom the Sox acquired from the Rockies in the Scutaro deal.

Understandably, that portrayal was seen as unflattering by Mortensen, who is in Red Sox big league camp as a member of the 40-man roster.

“It was definitely interesting to me,” said Mortensen. “I don’t put the expectations so high on myself, but I don’t consider myself a schmuck either. I know what I can do. I’m going to come over here and show you got something of value. You can use me in any sort of way. I’m versatile, can be a starter or reliever, and can definitely show that you got some value.”

Unquestionably, the primary motive for the trade from the Sox’ vantage point was indeed to shed Scutaro’s salary (which would have been calculated $7.67 million against the luxury tax threshold) and create greater payroll flexibility. The team used the available money to sign Cody Ross, and the club also now has an increased ability to take on salary with additional players in spring training or as the trade deadline approaches.

That said, the Sox did have a choice of a couple of Rockies prospects and chose Mortensen, a 2007 sandwich pick (No. 36 overall) who was traded by the Cardinals to the A’s in 2009 as part of a deadline deal for Matt Holliday, went from Oakland to Colorado a year ago in an exchange of minor league pitchers and now finds himself with his fourth organization in fewer than three years.

Mortensen endured a puzzling 2011 season. He enjoyed some success at the big league level, going 2-4 with a 3.86 ERA in 16 games (6 starts). But his results were little short of horrific in Triple-A, where he went 2-8 with a 9.42 ERA in 15 starts and 64 innings for Colorado Springs.

“I don’t know how to explain it. It’s weird. But,” Mortensen said, noting that his success occurred at the highest level while his struggles took place in the minors, “I think that’s better.

“My Triple-A [numbers] were atrocious. I don’t know how to explain that to be honest with you. Maybe in the major leagues you dial it in a little more.”

Despite his struggles in Triple-A, the Sox liked the tall sinkerballer’s groundball rates, and felt that he represented a worthwhile pitcher on whom to take a shot. He had greater arm speed (and hence velocity) earlier in his career, when he was a first-round section of the Cardinals in 2007. If he can regain some of that, then the Sox have a chance to enjoy a return on a buy-low player.

Mortensen was frustrated by his loss of velocity last year, suggesting that his arm felt healthy, but he struggled with general physical fatigue while pitching at altitude, particularly in Triple-A with Colorado Springs. A pitcher who is accustomed to working at 87-91 mph with his sinker, Mortensen was down as low as 84-86 at times last season.

“There was a little less sink to it, and my velocity was also down. That didn’t help. [Batting practice] fastballs, trying to throw sinkers that aren’t sinking when velocity isn’t there, it made it a lot more difficult — that’s for sure,” said Mortensen. “I’d ask the coaches, ‘Are these [velocity readings] right? I feel good. It doesn’t seem like it’s coming out [badly].’”

Mortensen anticipates that his fortunes will improve quickly with a move back to sea level. His success is predicated on the movement of his pitches; the mile-high air, the pitcher suggested — especially in Colorado Springs, which has an altitude that is roughly 750 feet higher than Denver and where there is no humidor to mitigate the pitching nightmare of thin air — tends to diminish movement and make it harder to control pitches.

“It’s miserable. If you’re not on point, then you’re going to get roughed up. If you leave your balls up, they tend to fly a lot farther than in humidity,” said Mortensen. “It’s tough being a sinkerball guy, contact guy. We always want to pitch to contact, but up there, contact is very scary. You have to be precise with your pitches. You have to be able to work up in the zone, which is not my strong point. It’s not a lot of fun and it’s challenging, but I think it makes you a better pitcher, because you have to figure out ways to get people out.”

Now, Mortensen is looking forward to returning to sea level and, he hopes, improving his results and fortunes.

“[The trade] was quite a sigh of relief,” said Mortensen. “I was like, ‘Finally – I’ll finally be somewhere the ball moves and it’s not going to fly out of the park.’”

Mortensen is expected to offer the Sox minor league depth in both the bullpen and rotation. At some point, he is eager to contribute and to demonstrate that the Scutaro trade was worth more than just freed payroll for the Red Sox.

Read More: clayton mortensen, colorado rockies, marco scutaro,
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