Monday, April 20, 2009

March from the Minors Begins: Bergesen to Start Tuesday for O's

Every Orioles fan knew that at some point this season a long line of high-ceiling, young pitchers would start marching their way to Baltimore from Norfolk and even Bowie. However, I don’t think anyone thought that the first start would be on April 21st for this group. Overall, the pitching hasn’t been completely terrible- one could easily make a case that the bullpen has been worse than the starting rotation this season. Even so, none of Baltimore’s starters had been so reminiscent of Steve Trachsel as to force a young player up into the starter role before he was ready. No, instead it was Mexican Spring Training Surprise Alfredo Simon, who went down with an elbow injury that could sideline him for at least the next month. Now the Orioles are left with bringing up the first of their promising young pitchers (I am not counting Liz) in Brad Bergesen.

There are a number of advantages to bringing up Bergesen over the other minor league prospects. Bergesen, for one, is about as good as he is likely to get at the minor league level. The 23-year-old does not have overwhelming stuff- a 93 mph fastball is about what he will top out at. He is far better known for his control, having command of a two seamer, four seamer, slider, and changeup. I will leave the details in Windsor’s prospect report if you want a more detailed breakdown of Bergesen’s strengths and weaknesses. However, it is unlikely that his command will get any better at the minor league level- when you know how to hit the strike zone you know how to hit the strike zone, end of story. In that sense, there was no point in keeping him in the minors except to protect him for as long as possible. Finesse pitchers can last a long time in this league; the O’s may as well start him out now.

Windsor and I had the opportunity to watch him first hand last season, and what impressed us the most was his poise. He gave up a few hits as we watched him take on the Met’s minor league affiliate, but he never wavered and moved seamlessly from batter to batter. He is a very cerebral pitcher, never trying to blow guys away but instead using the count and forcing hitters to take bad swings. That is an essential element that clubs spend years trying to instill in their young pitchers; Bergesen will have it from Day One. Additionally, this cerebral approach and strong command could help in easing the transition to the majors. He is unlikely to be taken in by the magnitude of the situation and forced into foolish mistakes or trying to do too much. He knows what kind of pitcher he is and won’t try to play outside himself.

Does this mean he will be successful? Not necessarily. In 11 innings of work so far at Norfolk, Bergesen has only walked 3 batters and struck out 9 en route to a 2.45 ERA. However, it is just 11 innings. He spent all of last season facing AA hitters at Bowie, where he started out extremely strong and struggled a bit down the stretch- could that be wearing down or hitters figuring his approach out? Either way, Bergesen will be facing an entirely new level of competition, but could have early success as hitters try to get a read on him. Brad Bergesen is at best a third starter in the long run,

Is he Baltimore’s best option? Absolutely. A case could be made for Chris Waters, who is certainly as good as he is going to be at the minor league level as he nears his late 20’s and already finished out the season last year with the major league club. However, given the circumstances of the call-up, and the fact that Bergesen would have been called up at some point over the next few months, it makes sense. Like everything with the Orioles rotation, it might be painful to watch but it makes sense.

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