Hill battle is steep for Penn

Next start looms big with O's rotation set

March 23, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,Sun Reporter

VERO BEACH, FLA. -- About two hours south of where Steve Trachsel was facing the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday, Hayden Penn was preparing for his own start, one that might decide his whereabouts when the 2007 baseball season begins.

With less than a week left in spring training, Penn is still in major league camp, and team officials maintain he has a shot to be on the Opening Day roster. But with all signs pointing to the Orioles' rotation being set and numerous candidates having emerged for the final two spots in the bullpen, Penn's margin of error will be extremely slim when he starts tomorrow in one of the split-squad games.

"I think he needs to pitch well to get himself a little stronger in contention," said manager Sam Perlozzo, who all but ruled out Penn's starting the season in the rotation because it is just about set. "If he pitches well, he can be the long guy if we have to. We just want to see Hayden pitch well. Then, we can talk about it afterward."

It was widely assumed when training camp opened that, with the addition of Trachsel - who signed after the Orioles learned Kris Benson would likely be lost for the season - Penn would need to have a dynamic spring to break camp with the club.

Penn's spring has been eventful, but not quite dynamic. In three games, Penn, a 22-year-old right-hander who remains one of the organization's top prospects, has given up two earned runs, seven hits and three walks in six innings for a 3.00 ERA.

His first appearance this spring was delayed when he sprained his ankle slipping on a flight of stairs at the team hotel. His first start this spring, scheduled for Saturday in Jupiter against the Florida Marlins, was postponed because Penn arrived late for the game after he left his equipment bag behind at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

His punishment being a missed start, he pitched three scoreless innings in relief that day, which helped his cause, but his tardiness still earned him a lecture.

"I told him, `Hayden, I am not going to give you the job. I don't give a job to anybody. Go get it,'" Perlozzo said. "`Don't feel like you have something because people have been writing about it. You don't have that. Nobody has it. You have to earn it.' It's up to him. I'd be happy to death to give it to him if he earns it."

Trachsel, who entered yesterday with an 8.18 ERA, had his best outing this spring, going six shutout innings, allowing two hits and two walks. He retired 11 of the last 12 Dodgers he faced. There was little chance the veteran right-hander would have been demoted anyway, but yesterday's performance settled the matter.

Penn's odds of making the team out of the bullpen also took a significant blow yesterday when long relief candidate Jeremy Guthrie pitched two more shutout innings. Another candidate, Rob Bell, has yet to give up a run this spring.

"I don't mind," Penn said, when asked whether he would pitch out of the bullpen. "I'll do whatever it takes to help the squad win. That's really all I am looking for - being in the big leagues and helping the team win ballgames, whatever role it may be."

It used to be part of the Oriole Way that young pitching prospects were called up and used in the bullpen to gain experience before they were ready to assume starting roles. Current members of the organization seem unsure that is the right approach with Penn, who missed nearly seven weeks last season when he had an emergency appendectomy the day of his scheduled major league debut in Seattle.

"Not longer term, I don't think it is [a good option]," Perlozzo said. "If you feel like earlier in the season he was going to get work, then I could see it. But if that's not going to happen, then it's better for him to pitch.

"He's 22. I've said this to you guys before: He'd be a first-round draft pick out of college right now. Hayden's had so many expectations put on him at such a young age. If Hayden doesn't make it to the big leagues for another three years, he's 25 years old and if he is a stud then, God bless us. We have a starting pitcher for 10 years. I still have confidence in him."

Pitching coach Leo Mazzone said he has not seen enough of Penn the past two seasons to determine whether temporarily converting him to a reliever is a good idea.

"I've never seen Hayden long enough to make a proper evaluation," Mazzone said. "There has always been something wrong. I just want to see what is best for him. He's still here, so we'll see how it works out"

After dominating Triple-A last year with a 7-4 record and a 2.26 ERA in 14 starts, Penn said he is ready for the majors. He described himself as a more consistent pitcher than the one who went 0-4 last season with a 15.10 ERA in six late-season starts for the Orioles.

"Anytime you get experience in the major leagues, how can that stunt you?" he said. "Yeah, it's not starting, but getting in games and getting experience is more important than anything. A lot of guys do it. They are long guys that can come in, get their feet wet, get comfortable, get in some games and then hopefully get into the rotation at some point."

Penn hasn't even allowed himself the thought that he may be headed to Triple-A Norfolk when spring training ends next week.

"I haven't thought about [Norfolk], I really haven't," he said. "I really don't think that way at all. Because if you think about all that stuff, it is going to get in your head and hold you back. I feel like I've been much more consistent and I can't wait to throw on Saturday."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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