SARASOTA, FLA. — Evan Meek's journey from Rule 5 pick, to All-Star reliever, to nonroster spring training invitee has taken its share of wild twists and turns, but the Orioles hope that they've snagged the 30-year-old at just the right time.
"A lot of this game is timing, and a lot of this game is the right fit," Meek said. "The comeback trail is a tough one. It was a long time and a tough road back just to get back to the point where I am now."
Earlier this month, the comeback trail led him to Baltimore, where he had a tryout in front of new pitching coach Dave Wallace and new bullpen coach Dom Chiti during the weekend of FanFest, a session that led to a minor league deal with an invitation to major league camp.
Just four years ago — before shoulder injuries derailed his career — Meek was one of the top relievers in the game. In 2010, his first full season in the majors, Meek was a National League All-Star for the Pittsburgh Pirates, going 5-4 with a 2.14 ERA while pitching for current Orioles bench coach John Russell, who was then the Pirates' manager.
"He became a dominant force in the National League," Russell said. "The kind of stuff that he showed was phenomenal. Guys did not like hitting off him."
For Meek, that seems like an eternity ago. The Orioles are Meek's sixth different organization since he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 2002, and he hasn't pitched in a regular-season major league game since July 24, 2011. He spent the entire 2013 season with the Texas Rangers' Triple-A team in Round Rock, Texas.
But when the Orioles signed Meek earlier this month following his workout in Baltimore, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had an excitement about the acquisition rarely seen for a nonroster invitee.
"Evan's got a chance to make our bullpen," Showalter said. "That was an exciting late add for me, because I think he's got a chance, especially if he's back physically all the way. [In 2010], he was about as good as there was in the National League. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch and see where he is."
In 2010 with the Pirates, Meek held opposing hitters to a .185 batting average and allowed just 53 hits over 80 relief innings as a seventh and eighth-inning arm. He recorded 15 holds and four saves, proving to be both durable and dependable in Russell's final season as Pirates manager.
But just two appearances into his 2011 season, Meek knew something was wrong with his arm. Following a 29-pitch outing, his arm felt sore. He continued to pitch and that soreness turned into pain. Over a two-week stretch, his fastball velocity dropped from 95 mph to 87 mph.
He went to see renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, who found a small tear in the back of his shoulder. He went on the disabled list for a month in late April and when he returned, he went back on the DL soon after, this time for three months. In all, Meek missed 116 days.
When he came back in 2012, he wasn't the same pitcher. He wasn't as strong, his breaking balls were loopy and his fastball didn't have the hard, downward angle it used to. He spent the year being shuffled between the majors and minors.
That prompted a lot of self-examination and a search for answers.
Two of Meek's former Pirates teammates — Daniel McCutchen (who was in Orioles camp last season) and Joe Beimel — introduced him to a weighted ball program that eventually made him realize that his arm injury had created a flaw in his delivery.
"I think the first thing a pitcher does when he gets hurt with their arm is they try to find somewhere where it doesn't hurt, and that becomes your new norm, and my arm slot dropped and everything just got out of whack," Meek said. "Before I got hurt, I was higher, so I was on top of the ball dragging it down. The breaking ball had angle.
"But you get so used to throwing a certain way. … I realized that, man, if I get my arm up, I might feel better. So once I started to get my arm up more, everything just started to come together."
That led Meek to an extensive film study to compare his post-injury delivery to his top seasons before.
"It was like a blinding light," he said. "Once I started doing that, everything started to come out easier. Now I take that into here and it's exciting. It's awesome. This is what I felt when I was healthy. Why it took this long to understand what my arm angle was doing, I really didn't understand until I worked with the weighted balls."
Meek credits those weighted balls — which vary from five ounces to two pounds — for helping him resurrect his career. Before a recent bullpen session, he clutched a blue one-pound ball and he keeps them in a bag at his locker.
Pitching in Triple-A last season was the first year Meek said he was healthy throughout since his All-Star season. He began the year as a reliever, but because he wasn't getting regular work and a rotation spot opened up, his final 14 appearances were made as a starter. Seven of those outings were quality starts.
"If you were going to tell me I was going to throw 120 pitches in a game in 2013, I would have told you you're crazy," Meek said. "I loved it. It gave me the opportunity to catch up on innings and really just to get more consistent work. Being able to start and being able to get that repetition really got me back on track."
Russell said he received a couple calls from Meek — who was looking to latch on with a team on a minor-league deal — in the offseason.
"He just wanted an opportunity," Russell said. "I think he's in a different place. I think he wants to get back to what he was. His makeup, I see it, just like I did then. The next piece is to go out on the field. So far, so good."
The Orioles are optimistic.
"He was free and easy," said Wallace, describing Meek's tryout in Baltimore. "If there was something wrong, he wouldn't be able to do it. The question is how healthy is he, where is he? If he's right, you might have something there."
Meek was planning on throwing for a bunch of teams following his throwing session in Baltimore, but the Orioles signed him before other clubs could pounce, Showalter said.
"He was getting ready to leave Baltimore and start doing a tryout for a bunch of teams down here and we were able to get it done," Showalter said. "I think we can out-opportunity people. He's going to be interesting."
Meek will battle for one of three or four available bullpen spots. It appears that Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, Ryan Webb and Brian Matusz have spots locked up. Troy Patton's 25-game suspension to begin the season opens an extra spot.
"It was tough getting to the point where I was at the top, making the All-Star team and going into 2011 ready and then getting hurt," Meek said. "It's been really hard to be patient. It sucked. It really sucked.
"When I say right time, right fit, last year was kind of getting everything back in the groove of things. And then, obviously with the starting, that brought back a lot of repetition. It kind of set me up for where I am now. Nobody knows what's going to happen here. There are a lot of really great arms here. We don't know what they're all going to do, but this is an opportunity."
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