When the Orioles drafted Adam Loewen with the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft, they envisioned the left-hander being at the top of their rotation for years. Now, they are left with the fleeting hope that he will eventually contribute somewhere in their lineup.
Attempting to make a comeback after elbow surgery last year, Loewen re-fractured his elbow, ending his career as a pitcher after 29 career outings. Loewen, 24, was told by doctors that if he decided on another surgery - he had a screw inserted in his elbow last June - he likely wouldn't be able to return to the mound for another year and a half.
Rather than rehabilitating again, Loewen is expected to report to the instructional league this fall and try to reinvent himself as an outfielder. Loewen hasn't faced live pitching regularly since 2003, when he played first base for Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., batting .353 with a homer and 38 RBIs in 45 games.
"If I did choose the other path of pitching, it would be a long road with no clear ending," said Loewen, who pitched in seven games this season, starting four of them. He last pitched July 6 against the Texas Rangers, leaving the game after feeling elbow pain. "This is not a simple decision, but it's right there in front of me and it was easy to make for me.
"It was devastating news, but I've always had a backup plan, so I'm sure I didn't take it as hard as anybody else would and as much as I love pitching and love playing for the Orioles, I still have a chance to do that," he said. "It's going to be a long and tough road, but I did it one time; hopefully I can do it again. I know what to expect and I think I'm mature enough where I can do this, and I'm still young enough to where I can do this."
The news is still a big blow for the Orioles, who had counted Loewen as one of their main building blocks in the rebuilding process. Loewen started the season as the Orioles' No. 4 starter mostly because the club wanted to ease him in after his surgery last year.
"It's hard," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "Forty percent of our rotation that we started with has already gone off the map and we're just passing the All-Star break. That aspect of it just goes to reiterate ... you never have enough pitching. Pitching is a priority, but that decision has been made for us. We have a good Plan B, and that's what we're going to do."
The 6-foot-5 left-hander joined the rotation during the 2006 season, going 6-6 with a 5.37 ERA in 22 appearances, including 19 starts. He had a great spring in 2007 and followed that up by going 2-0 with a 3.56 ERA in his first six starts in 2007. However, he was forced from his May 1 start at Detroit after five innings and never pitched again last season.
"Just being in spring training last year, he was dominating people," Orioles designated hitter Aubrey Huff said. "I had never seen him pitch before and I'm thinking, 'This guy has got the presence on the mound, he just had the aura up there.' Then, his arm just fell apart on him. It's a shame because he could have been a dominant guy. Hopefully, he can work his way back as a hitter and be the next Rick Ankiel story."
Ankiel was once a promising pitching prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals, but after struggling with injuries and his control, he gave up pitching to focus on becoming an outfielder. The transition has worked as Ankiel, the Cardinals' center fielder, entered last night hitting .278 with 22 homers and 54 RBIs.
"It's been six years, probably, five or six years since I've hit competitively in college," said Loewen, who is hoping to talk to Ankiel to get some advice. "It's going to take time, it's going to be a real challenge, but Rick Ankiel did it so at least I have somebody before me that did it that I can relate to."
Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis competed against Loewen in junior college and said, "I've seen him hit before, and he can hit. I definitely think if he puts the work and time into it, he can definitely get here."
Loewen said he was told by doctors that his continued elbow problems are a result of throwing off the mound "at a high intensity." He said that he doesn't foresee having problems making throws from the outfield because they are much less frequent and not as hard.
He also said he'll start working on his swing as soon as he's pain-free; however, he won't face live pitching until the fall league at the earliest. In the meantime, the Orioles will also have to rework his contract. Loewen signed a major league deal with the Orioles in 2003 and he is out of options, meaning he would have to be exposed to waivers before being sent down.
However, MacPhail has already had discussions with Scott Sanderson, Loewen's agent, about the issue.
"They are aware of it, and they anticipated that we would talk to them about this, so I don't anticipate any problems," MacPhail said.