Penn trying to shake off past, hit mark with O's

March 21, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - In the past, whenever right-hander Hayden Penn closed in on an opportunity with the Orioles, it seemingly was derailed by a misstep or mishap.

Injuries, bad luck and the occasional lapse in judgment have kept Penn on the periphery of the Orioles' plans while others, some far less talented, have passed him on the organizational depth chart.

Now, with roughly two weeks left in the exhibition season, Penn has one final chance to rejoin the team he debuted for as a 20-year-old wunderkind in 2005.

"There is always pressure, but I am just really thinking that I want to come in and not give them any reason not to make this team," Penn said. "That's the one thing I told myself."

Penn, 24, is competing for one of three open spots in the Orioles' rotation but has not distanced himself from the other eight candidates. He has allowed six runs in 8 2/3 relief innings and is expected to get a start tomorrow or Monday.

Because Penn is out of minor league options, if he doesn't make the roster he will be exposed to waivers and could be claimed by another organization. The unobtrusive Southern Californian has vowed not to leave without a fight.

"More than any other year I've got to pitch well," said Penn, who is 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA in four games this spring. "I have to pitch well this year and show them that I deserve to be on this team and I can be a major league pitcher."

Once, Penn was thought to be a future rotation mainstay.

In 2004, he was named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The next season he became just the third Orioles pitcher in 38 years to debut in the majors before his 21st birthday.

The sky was the limit for Penn. Instead, it fell on him. Time after time.

In 2006, he was recalled from the minors but was immediately sidelined by an emergency appendectomy. He began the 2007 season as Triple-A Norfolk's Opening Day starter - one phone call away from the majors - but strained an elbow in his first start, had surgery to remove bone chips and didn't return to the Tides for four months.

Last year, he was expecting an August call-up when a flying bat shard cut one of his legs. Then there was spring 2007, when he injured an ankle when he fell while carrying boxes up steps and later missed a start because he showed up late to a road game.

"I have had a couple bad breaks, but you know what? It is part of the game," Penn said. "Sometimes things don't go your way, and that's the way it is. But I think it has made me appreciate being healthy a lot more."

When asked whether he felt snakebitten, Penn immediately shook his head. "If I were so snakebitten, why'd I get called up when I was so young?" Penn said. "So there are two sides of the equation always."

What frustrates him is an inability to stay healthy long enough to make a big league impression. In 14 major league starts, all before he turned 22, he is 3-6 with a 9.31 ERA. In 109 minor league games, he is 36-29 with a 3.82 ERA. When going well, he has a low-90s fastball and a curveball with above-average break. He has a relationship with several people in the organization who have witnessed his upside.

"I think his arm strength is getting back to what it once was," said Orioles manager Dave Trembley, who managed Penn at Double-A Bowie in 2004 and Triple-A Ottawa in 2006. "At times, you'll see his curveball what it was. I've seen him pitch better when I had him, but he resembles that more and more."

Some Orioles officials believe Penn's quick ascent from fifth-round draft pick in 2002 to major leaguer in 2005 damaged his progression. It took time and soul searching for him to rebound from that experience.

"I don't want to say he had it easy, but he was in the big leagues at 20 years old," Norfolk manager Gary Allenson said. "Maybe he didn't think he needed to do that much to stay up here, and it has taken a while for him to grow up and learn a few things."

More than anything, those who have known Penn for years have talked about his maturation and renewed commitment. Three weeks before major league camp opened, Penn was working out at the Orioles' minor league complex in Sarasota.

"That speaks of his maturity, of his realization that the future is right now, the future isn't later on," Orioles director of player development David Stockstill said. "I believe that he realizes that there is an opportunity, but ... it's all up to him."

Penn said he really hasn't changed much in the past few years, just the normal growth most experience from 20 to 24. He said he has the same focus and same desire.

And that's to pitch for the Orioles, the only organization he has known. He doesn't want a fresh start in two weeks. He wants a rotation spot.

"I have got a lot of friends here; I have been an Oriole since Day One," Penn said. "So I want to make it here. And hopefully it works out."

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