Player development in minor league baseball is not only about moving up the organizational ladder but handling the miserable performances that occur along the way.
Chattanooga Lookouts starting pitcher Allen Webster now has experience on both fronts.
Rated by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system and the No. 95 prospect in baseball, Webster has had an alarming start to his first full season at the Class AA level. The 22-year-old right-hander is 1-5 with a 7.49 earned run average, and he has yielded 22 runs in his past three starts.
"What's amazing about him is that he's got the best stuff he's ever had in his career," Lookouts pitching coach Chuck Crim said. "He has something very special. He has a tremendous fastball, and his velocity is actually going up. He's got a lot of movement to his fastball, which he needs to learn how to control a little bit better.
"He'll get through it. His stuff is too good not to get through it, but he's just got to keep plugging away."
In his most recent outing, Wednesday's 9-0 loss to Montgomery at AT&T Field, Webster failed to last four innings before allowing nine runs on seven hits and two walks. The disappointment has been evident and the interviews brief for the 6-foot-2, 170-pounder who Baseball America projects in the 2015 Dodgers rotation along with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, top organizational prospect Zach Lee and current Lookouts teammate Nathan Eovaldi.
"The pressure is part of it, and it doesn't bother me very much," Webster said. "I'm just trying to get started back up again and get on a good note."
Selected by Los Angeles in the 18th round of 2008 draft out of McMichael High School in Mayodan, N.C., Webster quickly proved his value. In 2010, he went 12-9 with a 2.88 ERA in 26 games (23 starts) at Great Lakes in the Single-A Midwest League, limiting opponents to a .239 batting average.
Last year, Webster went 5-2 with a 2.33 ERA and limited foes to a .228 average in nine starts at high Single-A Rancho Cucamonga before being promoted May 24 to Chattanooga. He had a 3.38 ERA with the Lookouts last June and a 2.90 in July, but his August ERA skyrocketed to 9.47, making this the third straight month in which he's faltered.
"I have seen some good things to go along with the struggles," said Dodgers player development director De Jon Watson, who was in Chattanooga this past week. "For me, it was good to see him incorporate his changeup back into his mix, and his velocity has been outstanding. His raw stuff is better than it's ever been.
"It's just a matter of him making some adjustments in his pitch selection and then being able to handle the game when it speeds up a little bit and just staying under control."
Webster's next scheduled start is Tuesday night's series finale in Mobile.
"This is part of the growing and development process when you're trying to get these guys prepared to pitch against the best guys on the planet," Watson said, "so we would rather them go through a struggle and figure out how to manage the difficult times versus being in the big leagues and for the first time run into struggles. What he is experiencing is the whole point of him going through the minor league system, and hopefully he'll grow from these experiences."
Ethan Martin is 4-0 with a 2.81 ERA this season and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning Thursday night, and his talents are not going unnoticed.
The 22-year-old right-hander is No. 2 on Baseball America's "Prospect Hot Sheet," which is not a re-ranking of the top 100 but a snapshot of who is performing well. Martin, the No. 1 pick of the Dodgers in '08, is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in his last two starts with 16 strikeouts.