Penn poses more questions for O's
Right-hander's mixed performance prompts tough decisions
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- All spring, Baltimore manager Dave Trembley has been looking for somebody to step up and seize a rotation slot. On Thursday, he had somebody step back.
Hayden Penn's latest, and perhaps greatest, opportunity for a starting job appeared to be obliterated by a hail of hits Thursday, as the right-hander recorded seven outs and was charged with seven earned runs. Penn got blitzed for five runs in the second inning and two more in the third, perhaps ending his candidacy.
Trembley wouldn't admit to that after the game, saying instead that he'd have to judge Penn on his merits. When asked if he thought the youngster may have heaped too much pressure on himself, Trembley answered with a terse, "No," and deflected several other questions before finally addressing Penn's predicament.
"Obviously, you have to evaluate what you saw today," he said. "He fell behind and he didn't throw enough strikes, especially first-pitch strikes. He was off to a great start in the first inning. He had a real nice, sharp curveball. All of his pitches were working for him. Then it was completely opposite the second inning."
Penn, who has had a well-documented run of adversity as he's progressed through Baltimore's organization, was one of five candidates remaining for three vacant rotation slots. Trembley has tried to evaluate him alongside veterans Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson and untried options like Brian Bass and Alfredo Simon.
And through most of the spring, Penn had held his own. The former fifth-round Draft pick had pitched in relief in his previous five appearances and had his lone scheduled start canceled by a rainout. Trembley made room for Thursday's start by sending Danys Baez to the bullpen, handing Penn a chance to state his case.
"I think he's been more focused," Trembley said earlier in the spring. "I think his work habits have been better. I think at times I've seen him more closely resemble what I've seen him at his best for me.
"But I think at other times, he hasn't. And I think that's for everybody. Goodness sakes, we've seen [Jeremy] Guthrie [struggle] in the [World Baseball Classic]. Spring Training is not a time where you're going to see a finished product over and over and over again. You're going to see bumps in the road, and that's why you want to get people as much of an opportunity as you can and make your decisions based on the whole picture."
For Penn, the whole picture includes a history of bad luck in big moments. The 24-year-old first joined the Orioles in 2005, becoming one of just three Orioles since 1967 to make his big league debut before the age of 21. He had a chance to rejoin the team in 2006, but came down with appendicitis the night before his first start.
Penn saw a couple pitchers pass him by, and he got hit with the shard of a bat last season right before a potential promotion. Now, with loads of promise and a whole career ahead of him, he faces a crossroads. Penn is out of options and if he doesn't make the team, he stands a chance of being claimed on waivers.
"If it happens, it's another part of the game," Penn said. "I've been here since Day 1. I want to be here. If I don't get it done, I don't get it done. I can handle that, but I would like to be here."
Penn, who has a 36-29 record with a 3.82 ERA in the Minor Leagues, needed just four-plus years to shoot through Baltimore's farm system. He's stagnated in the last two seasons and hasn't appeared in the Majors since '06, but the Orioles still see his potential and want to give him every chance to succeed.
That's partially why he was granted a chance to start on Thursday and why he still can't be ruled out of the picture. Penn walked three batters in a five-man span and then allowed a bases-clearing triple to Emilio Bonifacio. Then he rang up two quick outs in the third before getting hit with a double and a single.
Penn, who said he felt fine physically, maintained that he hasn't really monitored the rotation picture this spring and that he doesn't think that he's tried too hard to live up to the team's expectations. In his mind, Thursday was just an example of what happens every once in a while when you don't pitch that often.
"I actually had a pretty good sinker going," said Penn. "I got started a little too low and it would dive down out of the strike zone. You're not going to get guys to swing when it's consistently down toward the ankles. But I actually felt like I had pretty good action on it. I just didn't get it started high enough."
The Orioles, meanwhile, have taken his adversity to heart. The Orioles no longer appear willing to rush their best pitching prospects, a fact that's evident from their handling of Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz. Baltimore will make the most of Penn's tenure, even if he winds up lost to a waiver claim.
"I think it is a good lesson that can be learned from that," said Trembley earlier this spring. "I think the lesson that should be taken is if you are going to err, err on the side of caution with those guys."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.