New year, new hope for Penn

He looks to be a cut above, not a surgery behind, in '07

February 16, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- First, it was Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo who sought out pitcher Hayden Penn in the clubhouse yesterday morning and gave the pitcher a brief pep talk, telling him to relax and be himself.

Moments later, hitting coach Terry Crowley visited Penn, thrusting his hands down at one point of the conversation as if to warn him not to overdo it.

Orioles officials know what the next six weeks mean to Penn, the confident 22-year-old who is still probably the organization's top pitching prospect. It is a chance to erase his brutal September last season in which he went winless in six starts and posted a 15.10 ERA. And it also represents his opportunity to earn that elusive spot in the rotation.

Kris Benson's partially torn right rotator cuff, most likely a season-ending injury, opens the door slightly for Penn to make the club, though recent signee Steve Trachsel is the clear favorite to snare the fifth spot. Before pitchers and catchers took the field yesterday for their first spring workout, Perlozzo essentially told his players that every position is up for grabs and it would be foolish to think otherwise. The message resonated with Penn.

"I had mixed feelings because Kris talked to me a lot last year on the bench, when I was struggling," Penn said. "He'd always be there just kind of helping me out. We'd be sitting there talking about little things that go on during the game when we were sitting there doing the charts. I'm sad for him and I'm upset that it happened, but it's also an opportunity for me. I need to take advantage of it."

Asked what he thought about Trachsel's signing, Penn said: "I didn't think anything. I figured they would. It's not anything that surprised me. I still know I have to come in here to compete and win a job. Nothing's going to be handed to me. I'm here to do that."

Penn is pulling out all the stops to distance himself from last year. He has cut his hair shorter and even grown some facial hair, a blond mustache that earned some ribbing from coaches and teammates but is allowed under the organization's grooming policy. "I have to change it up," he said.

The 2006 season had started with so much promise for Penn. In his first five starts with Triple-A Ottawa, he went 2-2 with a 1.48 ERA. Orioles officials, impressed by Penn's confidence and command of all three pitches, said they had never seen him pitch better. They were convinced he was ready to make the jump to the big leagues, not just to gain experience, but also to succeed.

Penn finally got the call and came directly to Safeco Field, where the next night, on May 23, he was scheduled to make his 2006 debut against the Seattle Mariners. But the pitcher suddenly began to feel sick and experience acute stomach pain. Trainer Richie Bancells sent him to the hospital, where he had an appendectomy.

Perlozzo picked up Penn the next day at the hospital and could tell how devastated the youngster was, his opportunity to pitch again in the big leagues - he went 3-2 with a 6.34 ERA in eight starts in 2005 - put on hold. He would miss nearly seven weeks of the season and wasn't recalled to the Orioles again until Sept. 3.

In his six 2006 starts, he made it through the fourth inning only once, giving up 38 hits, including eight homers, in just 19 2/3 innings.

"Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan.

"He was on track when he had the appendicitis," said vice president Jim Duquette. "Then once that happens, you are playing catchup the rest of the year. He really was playing catchup. I think it was a little unfair to have a full evaluation of him. You keep reminding yourself that he is 22 years old and he has 14 or 15 starts at the major league level already."

When Penn returned to his native California after the season, he said that he sat there every day, "kicking myself." He spoke to former teammates and coaches and analyzed videotape of those harrowing September and October starts, where Penn's outings often took on a batting practice feel. He noticed that his mechanics were off kilter, specifically his arm slot, which was more three-quarters than over the top.

"It was everything. Even in bullpens, I'd struggle," Penn said. "Me and [pitching coach Leo Mazzone] would be out there working and having a hard time throwing strikes."

Penn said that Mazzone called him twice this offseason to offer encouragement and to check on his progress. It was a far cry from last spring.

"He was calling me `Sean' for the first month," joked Penn, who was commended by both Perlozzo and Mazzone for his conditioning yesterday. "It's going to a lot more comfortable."

While saying he will get a chance to win a spot in the rotation, the Orioles haven't ruled out using Penn in relief, sort of like the Chicago White Sox used Brendan McCarthy last season. That would be just fine with Penn, who said, "I'm here to help this team win. Whatever they ask, I'll do."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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