The Kids on the Mound Are All Right

At least Penn’s arm wasn’t injured; other rookie stars not so lucky

By Christopher Heun

Young pitchers can be fragile. Elbows may strain, ligaments can tear, rotator cuffs might fray. The phenom psyche is delicate, too.

For the Birds this year, the best example of great pitching promise wrapped in kid gloves is Hayden Penn, who must know that so many hopes rest on his 21-year-old shoulders. Penn has fallen victim this season to both a freaky injury and shaky confidence.

An appendectomy in late May postponed his 2006 major league debut for four months, and once he did make it back, his five September starts have been spoiled by poor command brought on, he concedes, by trying to be perfect. To top it off, a strained lower back sent him off the field in the bottom of the fourth Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, after he had allowed two runs in three innings. One more start on Sunday, the final game of the year, is in doubt.

The silver lining – if there is one to be found – is that his arm wasn’t injured. How good Penn will be next year – and if he is ready to crack the starting rotation – will go a long way toward determining the fortunes of the Birds.

If this has been the year that Erik Bedard, a 15-game winner, finally broke out of his shell, then 2007 will belong to Penn and Adam Loewen. That trio was a big reason why ESPN.com’s Keith Law, who spent four and half years with the Toronto Blue Jays as a special assistant to the general manager, wrote earlier this month that “the Orioles have the best core of young pitching talent in the division. While some of those guys are still works in progress, the potential is there for one of the best pitching staffs in the American League.”

Unlike Penn, Loewen is ready to start every fifth day next year. Loewen, 22, has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 11 of his last 14 starts. In perhaps the greatest test of all, facing the Yankees, he’s 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA. The closest he has come to a major arm injury was a slightly torn left labrum that was discovered at the Orioles’ Fall Instructional League camp two years ago but fortunately did not require surgery.

Throughout baseball, this year’s class of rookie pitchers has emerged to play a major role in the pennant races in both leagues. But many of the youngsters are throwing in September for the first time, and their health has suffered.

Here’s some who’ve suffered serious setbacks recently:

Francisco Liriano
Perhaps the biggest story of the upcoming playoffs – the possibility that the Twins could start two of the best pitchers in all of baseball, Johan Santana and Liriano, back-to-back in October – will have to wait till next year. Liriano, 22, walked off the mound with elbow pain Sept. 13 ending his season after going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and striking out 144 in 121 innings. He was one of a plethora of young arms competing for the A.L. Rookie of the Year award (a mad second-half finish by Nick Markakis notwithstanding).

Jonathan Papelbon
Another A.L. Rookie of the Year favorite, Papelbon is a converted starter who took over as closer for the Red Sox in April, saving 35 games in 41 chances. His season ended prematurely, too, on Sept. 1. In 68 and 1/3 innings, he struck out 75, walked 13 and allowed 40 hits. His ERA was a measly 0.92. Boston has said that next year Papelbon, 25, will join the starting rotation.

Justin Verlander
The story with Verlander is not about an injury but preventing one. Only eight rookie pitchers since 1995 have thrown 200 innings in their first season. (And the results the following year for all but two weren’t good.) Verlander, 23, has thrown 186 and won’t pitch again till the playoffs. The Tigers have been skipping some of his starts (he made just four in July) or giving him extra days off in between. In 10 starts since Aug. 1, he’s pitched past the fifth inning only four times. Still, he’s 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA in 30 starts.

Josh Johnson
A Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League, Johnson, 22, went 11-5 with a 3.03 ERA as a starter for the Marlins. His ERA would rank fourth in the N.L., but he has just less than the minimum number of innings pitched to qualify. His season ended Sept. 12 because of a right forearm strain.

Phil Hughes
Technically not a rookie, Hughes, 20, was ranked by Baseball America at the start of the season as the top Yankees prospect. He was 6-0 with a 1.06 ERA in his last 13 starts for AA Trenton while the Yankees limited him to five innings every start the last two months of the season. After shoulder inflammation in 2005, he was injury-free this year.

When to Deal Them?

There’s another precarious phenomenon with young pitching to consider: often, you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

That’s certainly the case for the Red Sox this year. First they traded away Anibal Sanchez to the Marlins last November for Josh Beckett. Most known for his Sept. 6 no-hitter, Sanchez is 9-3 with a 2.80 ERA in just 16 starts. Beckett, meanwhile, is 16-10 with a 4.82 ERA.

Then the Sox sent Bronson Arroyo to Cincinnati for Wily Mo Pena. And after the season started, they dealt Cla Meredith, 23, to the Padres for knuckleball vacuum backstop Doug Mirabelli. A reliever, Meredith, 23, has allowed just 34 baserunners in nearly 50 innings to go along with a 0.72 ERA.

Orioles fans with a good memory may remember that A’s general manager Billy Beane wanted both Bedard and Penn two years ago for Tim Hudson. That’s at least one case where failing to pull the trigger – a big criticism of Mike Flanagan as GM – was a wise decision. Two young pitchers can be more valuable than an older, proven one.

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About mptaylor11

Roar from 34, a Baltimore Orioles Blog. Humor. History. Homerism. Since 2006.
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