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Chuck McGill: Smaller Heredia targets big year with Power

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Luis Heredia, at 6-foot-7, is an imposing figure on the mound. He has the big bonus ($2.6 million), big fastball (mid-90s) and big expectations (organization’s No. 10 prospect).

He is not as big as he used to be, however, and that is no small thing.

“He has done a great job with his physical preparedness and he’s in great shape,” said Jeff Johnson, who once again will be Heredia’s pitching coach with the West Virginia Power this season. “That’s the biggest thing for him.”

The 19-year-old Heredia arrived at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training complex in Bradenton, Fla., last year at 276 pounds. He made 13 starts for the Power in his first taste of full-season professional baseball, compiling a 7-3 record with a 3.05 earned-run average in 65 innings. He struck out 55 and walked 37.

There was work to be done for Heredia, who inked the multi-million dollar deal with the Pirates as a 16-year-old from Mazatlan, Mexico.

Heredia is listed on the Power roster at 6-7 and 270 pounds. He is closer to 240 pounds as West Virginia prepares to open the regular season Thursday at Lexington.

“I had to work a lot in the offseason,” Heredia said Tuesday at Appalachian Power Park. “It was hard, but I wanted to be better this year than last year. I feel a lot better, better in conditioning and better in shape. I need to get a little bit stronger, but I’m ready for the season.”

It is easy to forget that Heredia is still a teenager in the South Atlantic League. He is repeating the level, but is one of only three teens on the Power’s roster. The others are also among the Pirates’ top 10 prospects: catcher Reese McGuire and outfielder Harold Ramirez.

“I remember the first time I saw him he wasn’t 17 yet,” Johnson said of Heredia. “That doesn’t even seem like that long ago. He’s 19 now, he’ll be 20 in August, and he’s coming along. He’s getting more mature and learning to handle the professional life.”

Heredia made changes in his diet and conditioning. He cut out fast food, a necessary but difficult adjustment to make in the minor leagues. There are late nights and long bus rides at these levels of pro ball.

The Pirates’ training staff focused on Heredia’s core strength, which should help the right-hander’s delivery. Heredia struggled to repeat his throwing motion with his previous weight, so his mechanics were shaky and his command an issue.

“Now we can do some things with his body mechanically that he’ll be able to keep,” Johnson said. “He couldn’t really hold it last year; he was too heavy. The last six months he’s learned how to work, which is probably the biggest thing you have to learn at such a young age.

“His core needed the most work. When you are heavy you aren’t strong enough in the core to be able to hold your body in a delivery and be responsible for 100 pitches. His core strength is so much better.”

Heredia throws a 4-seam fastball, which can touch 96 and has a “tremendous downhill angle,” according to Johnson. Heredia has improved his fastball command and changeup, and the Pirates modified his breaking ball from a big curve to a slider.

“It’s not really a true slider,” Johnson said. “It’s bigger than that.”

Heredia started strong last season, allowing just three earned runs in his first 17 innings (four starts) with the Power. In two September starts, Heredia allowed six earned runs in eight innings (6.75 ERA), and had seven strikeouts against four walks.

The new-look Heredia will have a better chance at maintaining his early-season performance than last year’s version of the Pirates’ fourth-best pitching prospect. Former Power hurlers Jameson Taillon (No. 2), Tyler Glasnow (No. 3) and Nick Kingham (No. 5) are the only pitchers ahead of Heredia in Baseball America’s organizational rankings.

“He’s still just 19 years old, so there’s no reason to put him out there on Opening Day yet,” Johnson said. “We’ll let the college guys throw first.”

Heredia is scheduled to go fourth in the rotation, which slates him to make his season debut Sunday at Lexington. If the schedule holds, he’d likely pitch again in Charleston when the Power hosts Lexington on Saturday, April 12 at 2:05 p.m.

Whatever happens, the leaner Heredia feels prepared for the rigors of minor league baseball.

“This has been hard for me, but I feel better,” Heredia said. “My stomach is small now.

“I don’t care how long I have to stay here, I came here to compete and get better. That is what I want to do. My body feels good, so I’m happy now.”

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