Top pitching picks are a sore spot

ORIOLES PLUS

O's stockpile injuries as well as talent, making MRIs as prevalent as ERAs

July 28, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Chris Smith made it through four games before health issues interrupted his season.

That's twice as many appearances as another first-round draft choice, Richard Stahl, whose left shoulder required surgery last July.

Smith awaits the results of a magnetic resonance imaging test. Stahl plays long toss at the minor-league camp. And the Orioles wonder when they'll catch a break.

Holding tight to the premise that no team can have enough pitching, the Orioles selected Canadian right-hander Adam Loewen with the fourth overall pick in this year's amateur draft. He remains unsigned, but at least he's healthy.

For the Orioles, that's a significant gain.

As they attempt to stockpile their farm system with power arms, either to fatten their own staffs or provide enough depth to allow for trades, they also continue to be burdened with medical reports. For every guy who throws a shutout, another one seems to be shut down.

Smith was obtained with the seventh pick in 2001, signed June 12 and didn't pitch until the last week of the season. The Orioles handed him a light load, careful not to burden a former outfielder whose arm wasn't accustomed to the 84 1/3 innings he logged at Cumberland University in Tennessee.

He started late this year, with only four appearances at rookie-level Bluefield before the Orioles placed him on the disabled list last week when soreness returned to his left shoulder. He was examined by team physician Dr. Charles Silberstein, who took the MRI on Monday. Smith was 0-3 with a 14.54 ERA in four starts, walking 19 in 8 2/3 innings.

Stahl, part of scouting director Tony DeMacio's 1999 haul when the Orioles held seven of the first 50 picks, didn't pitch in the last two months of his first pro season because of a sore lower back. His final start in 2001 came June 3, and surgery was performed the following month to tighten the shoulder capsule.

Still rated by Baseball America as the organization's No. 1 prospect, Stahl started two games this season at Single-A Delmarva, allowing six earned runs and 10 hits in 9 2/3 innings. The Georgia native walked five and surrendered three homers before experiencing more tightness in the shoulder and later reporting to Sarasota, Fla., to begin a throwing program.

Sensitive to criticism over the injuries that keep striking their young pitchers, the Orioles are being especially careful with Smith and Stahl. It's possible they won't pitch again until the fall instructional league. Don Buford, director of minor-league operations, indicated that Stahl could wait until next spring.

Asked about the disappointment attached to these injuries, DeMacio said, "That's what's been really disheartening for me. With Stahl, we thought by now he would be getting really close. We thought he was special. We still think the kid is going to be fine, but that's what's been so disheartening.

"Smith's [injury] came out of the blue. People wonder if he was hurt when we drafted him. He wasn't hurt. Everyone in the country saw him."

Smith was a second-team All-America outfielder as a sophomore at Florida State before transferring to Cumberland, and Buford reasons that Smith's body is adjusting to the routines demanded of a pitcher.

"I'm guessing," Buford said, "he didn't have a regimen to prepare himself for what a pitcher goes through to get on the mound."

The Orioles continue to wait for some of their high draft picks to stay there.

Remember Josh Cenate, the 34th overall selection in 1999? He'll miss another full season after having his second surgery in three years to repair a torn labrum. Maybe it's something with left-handers.

Cenate made nine starts at Bluefield in 1999, and hasn't pitched since. He's rehabilitating at home in West Virginia. Buford spoke to Cenate on Thursday and said the former Jefferson High standout, who was 34-4 during his prep career, will begin a throwing program in the next 10 days.

"He indicated that he's feeling good," Buford said. "I know he wants to pitch."

Meanwhile, former sixth-round pick Erik Bedard - yes, another left-hander - won't throw for at least three more weeks after being diagnosed with a slightly torn tendon in his elbow. The Orioles were told that rest could repair it.

At least Matt Riley continues to pitch at Double-A Bowie after ligament-transplant surgery on his left elbow. And Beau Hale, the Orioles' top draft choice in 2000, ranks among the Single-A Carolina League's leaders in innings. Last season, he made only seven starts after May, and none after Aug. 8, because of a sore right shoulder.

Dave Schmidt, the Orioles' minor-league pitching coordinator who recently was named Bowie's pitching coach, noted that Hale is building arm strength and his fastball is reaching the low 90s.

"I saw him a few weeks ago and he pitched well," DeMacio said. "He's still a little disappointed that his velocity isn't all the way back."

The Orioles can live with that kind of disappointment. It's the others, the ones involving physicians and extended rest and throwing programs, that eat away at them.

"So far, from all the medical reports, these are all curable injuries and not career-threatening surgeries," Buford said.

As an organization's patience is tested, it preaches for more.

"People have a tendency to make judgments too fast," DeMacio said. "You've really got to give them time to develop. You have to believe in what the scouts saw.

"You'd like to see them all move faster, but it's easy to forget they're still young."

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