Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prospect Report: Jason Berken

I promise, one of these days I will in fact profile a position prospect. Quite honestly this system still needs an awful lot of help with position prospects without the last names of Wieters and Snyder. So rather than reaching for a position player, I have to give credit where credit is due, and profile the oft-overlooked Jason Berken. Berken was part of the Baysox’s incredible run last season, ranking second in wins on that team only to Brad Bergesen. He started this season in AA to the surprise of many, but rather than grumbling about being slighted he went about his work and was recently promoted to Norfolk. In his debut with the Tides he dazzled, pitching 7 shutout innings with only 4 hits allowed to go with 3 strikeouts and zero walks.

So, who is Jason Berken? Jason Berken is a 25-year old right handed starter hailing from the small town of De Pere, Wisconsin. Berken started playing baseball at Clemson University, where he put together a couple solid seasons as a starter in 2004 and 2006, missing the 2005 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. His rebound from surgery in 2006 was impressive, as he posted a 9-3 record in 18 starts, pitching to a 3.22 ERA in 81 innings. In doing this he was able to strike out 75 batters while walking 34. At Clemson he was known as a team leader and pitched his best when against ACC competition. The Orioles decided to take a chance on him in the 6th round of the 2006 Amateur Draft, placing him at short season Aberdeen where he excelled. Jason took a small step back in 2007, going 9-9 at Frederick with a 4.53 ERA and posting a career high 49 walks. Last season Berken exploded onto the map at Bowie with his finest season, going 12-4 with a 3.68 ERA and a 124-38 K-BB ratio.

Strengths: Jason Berken has the full complement of pitchers that you would like in a starting pitcher. He throws a 91-92 mph fastball with a changeup, slider, and curveball to complement. Berken’s greatest strength is in his command of these pitches, particularly his fastball. His slider can become a valuable go-to pitch for Berken when he is locating it properly. Unlike other young pitchers, Jason Berken is unafraid to pitch to contact and go right after hitters, which is exactly the sort of mature approach that can help him translate his game to the majors. As has been seen very often, young pitchers who are afraid to pitch to contact find themselves trying to be too perfect and get hit around in the big leagues. Berken has shown resilience throughout his career from the Tommy John surgery to his early struggles at Frederick. Even this season he showed that resilience, in rebounding from his first two mediocre starts at Bowie (total of 8 IP allowing 5 ER), only to pitch 7 shutout after his promotion to Norfolk.

Weaknesses: Jason Berken, while having good command, does not have the great level of command like other current and former Orioles prospects Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen. His command of offspeed pitches needs improvement, or more experienced hitters will just sit on his fastball which is not a plus pitch. In the end, Berken relies heavily on having good command because none of his pitches grades out much above average. Another concern is the fact that Berken, aside from his short stint at Aberdeen, has never been the top pitcher on his staff, including all of his years at Clemson. Jason Berken is also an injury concern, because even though he has felt no ill effects from the Tommy John surgery in recent years, that surgery is still a red flag for scouts.

Projection: Jason Berken is a tough pitcher who has fought his way to recognition, in much of the same way that Bergesen came out from anonymity last year. Jason Berken had a tough hand dealt to him this year being placed at Bowie rather than Norfolk, but he handled it well and now has his shot at AAA. Berken does not command the heavy sinker that gives Bergesen significant success, but does have a good deal of polish and poise which makes him a good option for callup sometime this year. He might not be a top-tier prospect like Tillman, Arrieta, or Hernandez, but the O’s would be far wiser to bring Berken up this season ahead of those aforementioned prospects who need more polish first. It’s hard to see where Berken might end up down the road, as the bevy of top pitchers should block him from a permanent rotation spot. I expect Berken to have a rotation spot by the end of this season and compete for a back-of-the rotation place or long reliever spot next season.

Note: There is an excellent piece on discussing the early success of the top young pitchers for the Orioles in the minor leagues this season. Definitely check it out.

(Photo Credit: Kevin Pataky/

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