FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Scouts love to talk about what Orioles prospect Brad Bergesen can't do. He doesn't throw that hard. He doesn't strike anyone out. His stuff isn't good enough to neutralize tough left-handed hitters.
But it's what he can do - mainly throw strikes and lots of them - that has the Orioles considering the young right-hander for one of three available spots in the rotation. Bergesen, the Orioles' Minor League Pitcher of the Year last year, didn't hurt his cause yesterday, throwing three scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in his Grapefruit League debut.
It was a typical performance for Bergesen, who gave up four hits but didn't walk anyone, struck out three and threw 29 of his 46 pitches for strikes against a Red Sox team that had only two of its expected regulars in the lineup.
"I'm happy with it," said Bergesen, who previously threw two scoreless innings against the Italian World Baseball Classic team. "It's nice to get back out there and get it going again. The first week, it felt like I was going about 100 miles per second, but finally I feel like I'm getting acclimated with my new surroundings."
Bergesen, 23, is at major league spring training for the first time, completing a quick rise that started picking up speed at this time last year. A fourth-round draft pick in 2004, Bergesen struggled early in his professional career with injuries and illness. His 2006 season was ended by mononucleosis. His 2007 campaign was interrupted when he got hit on the head with a ball during batting practice.
Finally healthy last year, Bergesen made four appearances for Single-A Frederick before being promoted to Double-A Bowie, where he went 15-6 with a 3.22 ERA, nearly earning a major league call-up late last year. He was expected to begin the 2009 season at Triple-A Norfolk, but injuries to several rotation candidates and Bergesen's performances in the two exhibition games and in bullpen sessions have at least put the right-hander into the conversation for a spot.
"Bergesen is polished," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "That's probably the report that I've got from everybody who has had him. He's a strike thrower. He's got movement. He's probably more of a total package guy now because he's maybe a little bit ahead, maturity-wise. He holds runners and fields his position."
Minor league director David Stockstill said last week that Bergesen is the "most ready" to be in the rotation among the organization's pitching prospects.
"He doesn't get mentioned stuff-wise with the other guys in the group, but he does what [pitching coach] Rick Kranitz preaches, which is pitch to contact, better than anyone on the organization," Stockstill said.
Still, there are plenty of questions about how his stuff will translate to the major league level. Bergesen's fastball sits in the 80s, and none of his off-speed pitches is considered above average. Left-handed hitters batted more than .300 against him last year, and Bergesen has struck out just 304 in 479 minor league innings, including 72 in 148 innings in his breakthrough 2008 season.
The lack of a put-away pitch is a main reason most scouts project him to be either a fifth starter or a long reliever.
"He struck out one every two innings last year, and that's not a real good harbinger of good things to come in the big leagues," said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America. "If you are not missing bats at Double-A, you're probably going to be hit hard in the big leagues."
Kranitz, who watched several Orioles prospects get opportunities last year and fail to throw strikes, defended Bergesen's stuff and his approach.
"I think some of the low strikeout totals is a product of him throwing strikes and getting ground balls," Kranitz said. "If he's inducing ground balls and he keeps the ball down, that's really all you want. He's going to get an opportunity [to make the team]. They're all going to get a chance."
Bergesen said his ability has been questioned for most of his career.
"I don't have that power arm. I'm not going to throw a mid-90s fastball by anyone," he said. "But what's really my game is just attacking the strike zone, working quick, getting ground balls and trying to keep my team in the game."
Asked whether he believes that will be good enough to be a successful pitcher at the next level, Bergesen smiled and said, "I sure hope so."
He just wants the Orioles to give him a chance to prove it.