SARASOTA, Fla. — Orioles manager Buck Showalter thinks it's unfair to dismiss Wei-Yin Chen's 2013 season as a disappointment.
After all, the Taiwanese left-hander posted a 4.07 ERA, just a tick above the 4.02 mark from his rookie year in which he was considered one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball.
There is a sense within the game, however, that Chen took a step backward last year because he missed two months in the summer with an oblique strain and struggled at the end of the season — possibly because he was dealing with knee discomfort. In October, the 28-year-old had surgery to remove bone chips in his right knee.
"A low 4.00 ERA in the American League, it's hard to do," Showalter said. "We also know he went through periods where he pitched a lot better than that. I think the big thing is just trying to keep him on the field."
So far that's been the most important development involving Chen this spring. He had allowed just three runs in his first nine innings before getting pounded for six runs and 10 hits, including two homers and five doubles, in 32/3 innings Wednesday in a 7-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. The performance pushed his Grapefruit League ERA to 6.39 in 122/3 innings.
Still, he struck out five, didn't walk a batter and said he was working more on command than trying to set up hitters with a particular sequence.
"Some of the pitches were up, so they squared them up. Other than that, I felt pretty good," Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. "I got more swings and misses with my fastball. I am happy about that. And I'm also happy about not issuing any walks. So, overall, it was pretty good."
Showalter has not yet announced the order of the rotation beyond Opening Day starter Chris Tillman and No. 2 pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. But Chen likely will slot into the third spot, pitching April 3 in the finale of the opening series against the Boston Red Sox.
"I think he is really important for us," said Zach Britton, who has become one of Chen's better friends on the club. "Right now, he is the only lefty in the rotation for a staff that needs to combat those lefty-heavy lineups we are going to face."
After throwing 1922/3 innings in 32 starts as a rookie, Chen was limited to just 23 starts and 137 innings last season. He started off strong, going 6-3 with a 2.87 ERA in his first 12 starts before finishing 1-4 with a 5.55 ERA in his final 11. He failed to complete six innings in five of his last seven outings.
The precipitous dropoff led to speculation that he was either fatigued or affected by the knee injury, which didn't become public until the October surgery was announced.
"I can't say that it didn't affect me, but I don't know actually how much," Chen said. "But for this year, I already got it taken care of, and I'm going to concentrate on this season … And I am not going to think about the knee anymore."
Previously, Showalter and the coaching staff took every precaution available to keep Chen rested, arranging the rotation to give him an extra day when possible. When Chen pitched in Japan, he was accustomed to starting every sixth day.
"This will be his third year in a five-man rotation, and you all know how many times we gave him some extra time when we could," Showalter said. "But … he is a well-conditioned guy, and I'm looking forward to him being out there every fifth day for us all season."
Two offseasons ago, Chen spent most of the winter in California working out with club vice president Brady Anderson and a group of pitchers that included Britton and Miguel Gonzalez. The three pitchers formed a close bond — one that still remains.
"We were there almost every day, just kind of interacting with him. He didn't have a translator, so he was fending for himself a little bit," Britton said. "It was just about him getting comfortable with [English]. And when he opened up, we saw the Chen that he really is. He's really funny, he likes to joke around. And he blends in really well with these guys."
Case in point: Britton recalls a night in Cleveland in which Chen took his former translator, Tim Lin, and Britton to an authentic Taiwanese restaurant. Britton couldn't read a word on the menu, and Chen volunteered to order for him. Britton's meal looked like "Jell-O on rice" and, "was absolutely disgusting."
"I'm eating this stuff and I'm trying not to be rude. To myself I'm like, 'Oh my god, this stuff is awful,' " Britton said. "[Lin] finally tells me, 'Dude, no one eats that stuff. It's the nastiest stuff you will ever have.' … For the next two weeks, Chen thought he was the funniest guy in the world."
As catcher Matt Wieters said: "Chen fit in right away. His baseball competitive spirit fit in right away, and he is great to have in the clubhouse, too."
Now, the club hopes he'll take the next step in his maturation as a pitcher. His initial three-year deal expires after this season, but the Orioles have a team-friendly $4.75 million option for 2015 (with a $372,000 buyout).
He'd likely have to have a truly rough season for the Orioles to not exercise the option. And that's the furthest thing from his mind.
"Every year the goal is to stay healthy, and this year, I'm going to try to pitch more innings than before. That's my goal," Chen said. "Of course, I want to improve on every aspect of pitching. This year I am going to try and stay on pace and try to improve everything that I can."
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