By Ben O'Brien
As the Birds sweat it out in Fort Lauderdale, O's fans everywhere are squawking about one thing and one thing only -- pitching, pitching, pitching.
Don't worry, Birdland, there are 37 pitchers vying for a chance to dig the orange-and-black out of this decade-long hole.
In the front of that pack are Troy Patton and Matt Albers, who are pitching with huge question marks where their numbers should be. There is no doubt that this pair have talent, but it's anyone's guess as to how these two pieces will fit into Baltimore's pitching puzzle.
Patton was the jewel of the Miguel Tejada trade in December of 2007. He had made his major league debut in August after pitching to a 27-28 record and a 3.01 ERA in 82 games in the minors. Following the season, he was ranked as the Astros' No. 3 prospect by Baseball America.
The Orioles had high hopes for the then-22-year-old hurler, but they were also aware of his nagging shoulder pain. When the team finalized the trade, they did so with the hope that a restful winter break would heal his shoulder and quell the need for season-ending surgery.
Patton shut it down for four months but was never able to regain his form during spring training. He decided to see a doctor, and an arthrogram revealed a minor tear of the left labrum. It is one of the most common pitching injuries but Patton's seemed severe enough to warrant surgical repair.
"I was disappointed when the doctors recommended the surgery," Patton said. "Looking back now, it was the right thing to do."
The youngster's baseball progress was suddenly at a standstill on March 18 and he was faced with months of rehabilitation and strengthening before he could throw again.
Fast forward to June 25. Albers, then 25, was making his third start of the young season against the Chicago Cubs. After facing just one hitter, he felt a pain in his shoulder and was forced to leave the game. When Albers found out later that the pain he felt during his shortest outing as a pro could possibly be a torn labrum, he called Patton.
"He was one of the first guys I called to ask him about what kind of pain it was and how it felt," Albers said. "He gave me some great pointers. I asked him some questions about the MRI and where I should go from there."
After going through several evaluations, Albers decided that he would forgo surgery and rehab his shoulder to prepare for the next season. Patton certainly understood, and his advice to his fellow Texan was much that of coaches and doctors who had already schooled Albers on the depth of his ailment.
"He was basically just telling me that if your arm doesn't feel good or you really can't pitch to your full potential, it is just best to shut it down," Albers said. "In the end it just kind of reinforces the fact that if I had to have surgery like Troy, it wasn't going to be the end of the world."
Albers had been one of Baltimore's biggest surprises in his first go-round as an Oriole, becoming a reliable stopgap in the middle of the bullpen. He also made three emergency starts, going 3-3 with a 3.49 ERA overall until that muggy night in Chicago.
Now two of the O's newest arms were ailing and fans and players and coaches were left with nothing but questions about these two Texas transplants (Matt grew up in Houston and Troy in a small town called Spring).
Albers joined Patton in the quest to make it back for '09, but both players took different paths.
"The first month was mostly letting the shoulder heal so the rehab was slow," Patton said. "The next three months I spent getting the range of motion back in my arm, which meant a lot of stretching and band work. After four months or rehab I started a throwing progression that took me through eight months. By the end, I was pitching full speed off the mound."
"I came back for Aberdeen at the end of the season last year and I had good velocity," Albers said. "I took off a few months after that and didn't pick up a ball again until mid-December. I haven't had any setbacks since then and I have been doing 40-pitch bullpens lately."
Both players said when they report to camp they expect to compete and remain healthy enough to make an impact. If Albers and Patton can come through on those predictions, the O's will leave Fort Lauderdale with a few less headaches on the mound.
"My goals this season are to play the full season healthy and log as many innings as possible," Patton said. "Where I fit in with the O's depends on many factors but as long as I contribute to the team and get outs I will be happy."
"There is a possibility I might have surgery in the future, but I'm not concentrating on that at all," Albers said. "Right now I am coming in to hopefully make my way into the starting rotation. I am mentally preparing for that and I know Troy is, too. We are both competitors and I think we can lead this pitching staff someday soon."
Issue 134: February 2009