Let me start out with a disclaimer: This is not meant as puff piece defending the Orioles and president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. The team is horrible – we're talking historically atrocious – and, as Sun columnist Peter Schmuck has written, there's legitimate reason for concern about the minor league system, too.
But one thing I've grown weary of is fans' ripping on pitcher Matt Hobgood, the Orioles' first-round pick (No. 5 overall) of the 2009 first-year player draft out of Norco (Calif.) High.
Hobgood, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound right-hander, is 3-6 with a 4.48 ERA in 12 starts for the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds this season. In first professional season, he was 1-2 with a 4.72 ERA in eight starts for Rookie-level Bluefield.Sure, those numbers are far from impressive, but let's keep in mind that the kid isn't even out of his teen years yet (he turns 20 in August). Many players drafted out of high school – even those who go on to become bona fide superstars – take years to develop, a fact you would think wouldn't be lost on any serious fan of the game.
But in reading comments from some posters on Orioles Insider or The Schmuck Stops Here and talking baseball with some Orioles fans, they would have you believe that Hobgood is a bust, doesn't have what it takes, is one of the team's worst first-round picks of all time, etc.
Obviously, I'm not talking to all of you, but I've heard Hobgood's name dragged through the mud more times than I care to count, and I just don't get it. Again, the kid is 19. To say that he is already a failure isn't just wrong; it's stupid.
Look, I'm not saying Hobgood is going to pan out to be a phenomenal pitcher or even necessarily a good one. Heck, he might turn out to actually be a bust. I don't know, and that's the point – none of us knows yet. It's just too early to tell. Yet there are plenty of people who already label drafting Hobgood as a disaster on the part of MacPhail and the Orioles. Why, because he's not tearing through the minor leagues like Josh Beckett or other early first-round picks out of high school before him?
Sure, it'd be great if Hobgood were lighting up the minors and burning holes in hitters' bats. But the fact that he isn't is no indication that he won't mature into a quality pitcher.
Find that hard to swallow? Look up the minor league statistics for Ubaldo Jimenez, the Colorado Rockies ace and Cy Young Award candidate who leads the major leagues this year with a 13-1 record and 1.15 ERA in 14 starts. Jimenez, a Dominican who entered the professional ranks at the age of 18, endured struggles at almost every level of the minors (6.53 ERA in 14 starts for Rookie-level Casper in 2002; 5.43 ERA in 12 games for Double-A Tulsa in 2005; 5.06 ERA in 13 starts for Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2006; 5.85 ERA in 19 starts for Colorado Springs in 2007). Even Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley posted a 4.80 ERA in 12 starts for High-A Reno as a 17-year-old in 1972. Those aren't the only examples of young pitchers who had a rough go of it in the minors before going to achieve greatness in the bigs, just two particularly compelling ones.
Am I saying Hobgood is going to turn out to put up jaw-dropping numbers like Jimenez or go on to a Hall of Fame major league career like Eckersley? Absolutely not. But imagine how foolish you'd feel if you had written off either of those guys after some less-than-desirable minor league performances.
And yet, some people have no problem doing that with Hobgood, a player who has yet to play a full season as a professional and who can't even sip a beer legally. It's astounding to me.
I have no problem with criticism when it's deserved, and as soon as Hobgood signed a contract with the Orioles, he opened himself up to be thrust under a microscope. If you want to dissect every pitch the kid throws in the minor leagues, go nuts. If you want to pick apart his delivery or question his conditioning, have a field day. But let's at least be rational and fair in our evaluations of Hobgood.
Branding a pitcher a bust before he has had a chance to start more than 20 games in the minors – or, better yet, suggesting that the Orioles turn him into a hitter because he clearly doesn't have what it takes on the mound, as one Orioles Insider reader did in a recent post -- is short-sighted and a waste of everyone's time.
(As an aside, I'm not ignoring the fact that some of the criticism of Hobgood stems from the perception that MacPhail and the Orioles selected him because he was an easy, quick sign, and that fellow pitchers Mike Leake and Drew Storen, taken eighth and 10th overall, respectively, in the same draft, are already in the majors and excelling. Those are valid points, and I'm not giving MacPhail and the club a pass on those. But let's give Hobgood some time to show what he's got before we blast him as an awful draft pick.)