Saturday, February 14, 2009

Roster Management

One of the most important tasks of any general manager is roster management. Teams need to construct a 25-man roster that fills each defensive position, provides at least one back-up for each defensive position, enough relievers to give the manager flexibility in late game situations and allows for adequate rest. This year, the Orioles are faced with a unique constraint in that they have three pitchers, Rich Hill, Hayden Penn and David Pauley, that are out of minor league options and must be kept on the 25-man roster or exposed to waivers. Unfortunately, this was an entirely avoidable problem, at least for Hayden Penn.

Penn was drafted at age 17 in the 5th round of the 2002 draft. He signed in August and did not make his pro debut until the following season, 2003. As is common for 18-year old Orioles, he debuted at rookie level Bluefield. He posted mediocre numbers in his first professional season, throwing 52 innings, allowing 58 hits and 19 walks while striking out 38. The next year, at age 19, he began the season a low-A Delmarva. Over six starts (13 total appearances), Penn posted more impressive numbers, allowing fewer hits and raising his strikeout rate, but still showing a high walk rate. The Orioles promoted him to high-A Frederick, where he continued his improvement. In 13 starts, Penn threw 73 innings, maintaining a strong strikeout rate and improved hit rate, but also improving his walk rate. Now, most organizations would be thrilled with an 19-year old pitcher succeeding in high-A and allow him to finish his second professional season at that level. But not the Orioles. Instead, the Orioles promoted Penn aggressively, allowing him to make his final four starts at double-A Bowie.

In 2005, at age 20, Penn returned to Bowie and pitched well, but unspectacularly. Over 110.1 innings, Penn compiled a 7-6 record, 3.83 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. He allowed 101 hits, but struck out 120 batters and walked just 37. Unfortunately, the Orioles then promoted him to Baltimore, after a mere 311.1 minor league innings, and things, not surprisingly, did not go so swimmingly. In 38.1 innings, he struck out just 18, walked 21, allowed 6 home runs and posted a 6.34 ERA. Still, for a 20-year old pitcher, the growing pains were to be expected. The real problem with Penn making his Major League debut in 2005 was that he had to be added to the 40-man roster, and thus would require being optioned to the minor leagues to start 2006.

Penn began the 2006 season at Ottawa, and by May had been called up to Baltimore. Before he could pitch, however, he suffered appendicitis and missed several months. Upon returning, he pitched extremely well at triple-A Ottawa, throwing 88 innings over 14 starts, striking out 85, allowing just 27 walks and 71 hits. As a 21-year old in the International League, he was rightly a top Oriole prospect. Still, his September call-up did not go so hot (19.7 IP, 8 K, 13 BB, 38 hits allowed, 8 home runs allowed, 15.10 ERA).

Then, further injuries in 2007 and 2008 prevented Penn from again pitching for Baltimore. Still, he had to be optioned to the minor leagues each season. 2006, 2007 and 2008. That's three option seasons and now Penn must either be on the 25-man roster or exposed to waivers. Had he simply not been called up--prematurely--in 2005, 2009 could be his third option season. Coupled with the unfortunate Major League contract for Adam Loewen, this is yet another example of poor pitching development from previous Oriole management.

This is a cautionary tale for handling Baltimore's current crop of young pitchers. Tillman has yet to be added to the 40-man roster, and he shouldn't be until as late as necessary; same for Arrieta. Matusz signed a Major League deal last summer, but if he's not pitching in the Majors five seasons from now (refer here for a rundown of the option rules), I think it's safe to say that he'll be considered a bust. Young pitchers are a fickle breed; they can appear ready for the Majors at 21, and still be seeking a return to the Majors two years later. When it's July and the Orioles are in need of a starter for a doubleheader against the Kansas City Royals, let's not push for the promotion of a young pitcher too soon.

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