Lefty T.J. McFarland is forcing the Orioles into a tough decision

Team must determine by Sunday whether to put impressive Rule 5 sinkerballer onto 25-man roster

  • T.J. McFarland made his first start in a big league uniform Monday in a nationally televised Grapefruit League game against the Red Sox.
T.J. McFarland made his first start in a big league uniform Monday… (Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports )
March 26, 2013|By Dan Connolly | The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — Standing on the mound at Ed Smith Stadium on Monday afternoon, with 30 mph winds swirling around him and ESPN cameras capturing his every move, Orioles left-hander T.J. McFarland was the perfect picture of calm.

Sitting in an office chair in Bedford Park, Ill., huddled over an MLB.com video feed that wouldn't work, Tim McFarland wasn't exactly as collected as his 23-year-old son.

"I'm the only one that didn't watch it live on ESPN. I had the MLB feed at the office and the damn thing went out two pitches into the first batter. So I never saw it live," T.J.'s father, said chuckling. "The gameday [web site] was delayed, I couldn't get any audio, so I felt kind of foolish, like I should have been in the stadium, No. 1. Or No. 2, I should have been with a group of people watching it on TV somewhere."

But Tim McFarland, president and part owner of Lexington Steel in suburban Chicago, prefers watching crucial sporting events alone so he can totally focus. And nothing was more important to him than Monday's Grapefruit League game between the Orioles and Boston Red Sox in which McFarland's youngest son was making his first start in a big league uniform.

"The feed stopped, then started and then all the sudden went black," Tim McFarland said "And I was sitting there looking at a blank screen while my kid is pitching, and I don't know what's going on. It was kind of goofy."

There are two silver linings here for the disappointed dad.

One, he also had recorded the game at home, so he watched every pitch later that night. Two, from what scouts and other baseball observers believe, Monday will not be the last time T.J. McFarland makes a televised appearance in a big league uniform.

The question, though, is which uniform he'll be wearing when it happens.

That's something the Orioles must answer soon.

The club selected McFarland from the Cleveland Indians in December's Rule 5 draft and must keep him on their 25-man big league roster (or disabled list) for the entire season or offer him back to the Indians for half the original $50,000 purchase price.

They made it work last year with infielder Ryan Flaherty, and now Flaherty is a favorite to make the 2013 Orioles in a do-everything reserve role.

But the situation with McFarland is trickier. A starter all of his professional career, McFarland's only chance of sticking with the Orioles is to be the long reliever in a stacked bullpen. The Orioles would have to make a trade — they've talked with teams about dealing away Luis Ayala — to create room in the bullpen for McFarland.

Otherwise, there would have to be an injury to someone on the pitching staff — starter Chris Tillman is a possibility there — or they'd have to go with a three-man bench to shoehorn McFarland onto the roster.

"We'd like to have him. We'll see," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We feel as strong if not stronger than we did about him when we took him."

The Orioles could try to work out a deal with the Indians to keep McFarland, but there's a twist to that, too. Before a trade could be made, McFarland would have to clear waivers. And the sense is that at least one pitching-deprived non-contender would snag the lefty.

"From what I saw, I wouldn't think there is a way he clears," said one major league scout who watched McFarland pitch this spring. "He really pitched well and he showed no fear in his situation, looked like he felt he belonged, which I think is the biggest thing."

So McFarland, a fourth-round pick in the 2007 amateur draft who has pitched just three months at Triple-A, will either be on a big league roster or return to the organization where he's been since graduating from high school.

"It's a win-win for me," McFarland said. "If I do go back, the worst case is I just go back to Cleveland. I think I have bettered myself status-wise. Overall, I think people have seen me and know what I am capable of doing. I'm just thankful for this opportunity, of Baltimore picking me up and throwing me on this stage."

In 2012, McFarland led the Indians organization with 16 wins while posting a combined 4.03 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A.

"He's a very hard worker, very determined," said Mike Sarbaugh, who was McFarland's manager last year at Triple-A Columbus. "If he had a bad start, he would want to do so much work to fix things that you almost had to tell him to back off at times. He's determined to get to the big leagues."

Sarbaugh wasn't in the final meeting when it was decided not to put McFarland on the Indians' 40-man roster. But he said the organization knew it was a risky proposition.

"Any time you have a left-handed starting pitcher that had success at Triple-A, I don't think you are really surprised," said Sarbaugh, who is now Cleveland's first base coach. "It was a tough decision not to put him on it. I know that for a fact. But, hey, we wish all the best for the player. It would be nice to have him, but you want the best for T.J."

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