SARASOTA, Fla. — Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette went to December's winter meetings with several ideas in mind to improve on last season's success.
His work in Nashville — the Orioles were able to re-sign outfielder Nate McLouth but couldn't reach a deal to acquire a power hitter — received mixed reviews. But on the final day of the meetings, Duquette plucked left-handed pitcher T.J. McFarland from the Cleveland Indians with the 23rd pick of the annual Rule 5 draft.
This spring, the Orioles will see if selecting the 23-year-old pays off.
In the Rule 5 draft, teams can pick an unprotected player — players who, depending on age, have four or five years of minor league service time and aren't on a 40-man roster — from another organization and purchase his contract for $50,000. That player has to remain on the major league roster for the entire season, otherwise the club must offer to sell him back to the original team for half price.
But holding onto a pitcher is much more difficult. And that will be the toughest test for the Orioles, who have 28 pitchers in camp — an intact bullpen and 12 pitchers competing for rotation spots.
"It's the American League, the American League East," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "You don't carry somebody and hide them. They're going to pitch, and they've got to get people out, but we think that T.J.'s got a chance to be there or we wouldn't have drafted him and spent the money."
Showalter said the 6-foot-3, 220-pound McFarland will have his opportunity to make the starting rotation — all but nine of his 116 professional outings have been starts — but he could also make the team as a reliever if he proves worthy. Having a capable left-handed ground-ball pitcher in the bullpen is always valuable.
"I can go into any role," McFarland said. "Really, I'm just focusing on making the team and then whatever role I fall into, I fall into. I'm fine with being a starter or being a reliever. But really my main focus right now is what I can control, which is how I perform and just working hard. That's really what I'm really focused on."
McFarland, Cleveland's fourth-round pick in 2007, was 16-8 with a 4.03 ERA in 27 starts at the Double-A and Triple-A levels last season. He dominated Double-A hitters early, winning eight of his 10 starts and pitching to a 2.69 ERA before earning a promotion to Triple-A Columbus, where he learned he had to make more adjustments.
"In Triple-A, I came to understand I had to pitch a little differently," McFarland said. "I did make that adjustment, just approaching hitters differently. I started all of last year, and just facing the lineup two, three times you kind of have to switch up you approach for each hitter. Hitters are a lot smarter and they're harder to get out as the game goes on."
Still, McFarland quickly impressed his teammates with his mound presence. Orioles infielder Russ Canzler, who played with McFarland in Columbus last season, was surprised McFarland didn't get a late-season call up.
"He's got a lot of poise for a young guy," Canzler said. "That's the first thing I was impressed about him. When he came up, first start, he came in and he showed a lot of poise on the mound. He has good body language. He's a guy who is going to go out and work his butt off.
"He had some really, really good quality starts for us," Canzler added. "When his sinker is on, he's great. He's got a really deceptive arm angle. You throw all those things in the mix and I think you've got something special."
To McFarland, success is simple. If he can rely on his sinker to get major league hitters out, he believes he can stick.
"I've been fine-tuning my sinker," McFarland said. "I feel like if I throw strikes and keep everything over the plate, I have a chance to get any hitter out. I'm just going to try to get hitters to mis-hit the ball, get ground balls, and that's my game."
But, being a Rule 5 pick, there's little room for error this spring for McFarland. Everything he does will be under a microscope, because the Orioles must make a hard decision on whether he can help their major league club now. It doesn't help that there might be just one rotation spot available and nine pitchers with relief experience on last year's team returning.
"I feel like there's a little pressure here, but I feed off of that," McFarland said. "I like that. It makes me step up to the next level, and I'm sure I'll be given some innings and some work to show what I have. I'm excited. The pressure that I'm feeling, it's not so much pressure, but I'm anxious to throw out there and get my first inning."
McFarland will throw his first inning of the spring in one of Wednesday's two three-inning intrasquad games.
The Orioles are eager to see what he can do.
"There's a different presentation to him," Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said. "It's not funky, but yet it's not conventional. The ball comes out of his hand consistently. He seems to have real good poise. He fits in. We'll see what we have but it's very favorable from what we see do far."