FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -The booing was the furthest thing from Danys Baez's mind. As he walked off the mound after an outing that typified his trying 2007 season, all Baez could think about was the pain in his right elbow.
He didn't pitch again in 2007, his lasting memory his Sept. 12 appearance against the Los Angeles Angels in which he allowed two hits - including a homer - walked three, surrendered two earned runs and got jeered by what remained of the home crowd.
Baez, 31, will finally be back on the mound in an Orioles uniform today with a surgically repaired right elbow and his eyes on a new role. He'll start against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, his first audition for a rotation that has at least two spots available and plenty of candidates.
"I'm super excited," said Baez, who hasn't started a major league game since Aug. 24, 2002, when he was with the Cleveland Indians. "It's a good time to prove how healthy I am. It's going to be a good day for me and my career."
The Orioles signed Baez to a three-year, $19 million deal as part of their pre-2007 season bullpen spending spree, hoping he would become then-closer Chris Ray's primary setup man. The contract was criticized industry-wide at the time, and it looks even worse now.
While the Orioles got at least productive stretches out of fellow bullpen acquisitions Jamie Walker and Chad Bradford, Baez went 0-6 with a 6.44 ERA in 2007, his first season with the club. He had ligament-reconstruction surgery that October and missed the entire 2008 season as he rehabilitated the injury.
Aside from being a spectator in spring training last year and occasionally joining the club when it was in Florida to face the Tampa Bay Rays, Baez had little contact with his teammates. Instead, he worked out near his Miami home and spent significant time at the club's minor league complex in Sarasota.
"It was crazy," Baez said. "It was the first time I just did not feel part of the team. I wasn't ready to do anything for the team. I couldn't help my teammates. That's the first time I went through that, and it wasn't fun. It was just a real tough time, just very frustrating."
It was toward the end of his rehabilitation when Baez started thinking seriously about trying to make the transition from a reliever - he has 114 career saves - to a starter. His thought process, which he eventually voiced to team officials, was simple. He didn't think his elbow would hold up under too many back-to-back assignments, and the four days between starts would allow him to get the rest and treatment he would need to be effective.
He also figured he would need time to work off the rest and make adjustments, something relievers don't get.
"I worked super hard these 15 months to come back, and I'd have more room to make mistakes as a starter," said Baez, who is 9-10 with a 4.44 ERA in 26 career starts, all coming in the 2002 season. "You give up a couple of runs and you still have a chance to stay in the game and help the team. The bullpen, there's no room to make any mistakes. That was one of the main reasons I made the decision. I'm not sure what kind of decision they're going to make, but I at least want to have a chance to prove that I can do it."
Manager Dave Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz said they are serious about giving Baez an opportunity to start.
"We're going to take a really good, long look at him for the rotation," Kranitz said. "There are days when you watch his bullpens and the ball really accelerates in the strike zone. But I think the test for him is how he's going to react to the pitching load that's he's going to get. He's not used to that."
Trembley acknowledged it was understandable to be skeptical about whether Baez can make the transition.
"That's an honest, fair question," he said. "I'm sure it's something that we're going to find out. He needs to show us and show himself if he has the ability to go longer than an inning."
That process will start today. Baez said he won't be concerned about the results. For now, he's content with being back on the mound and healthy again.
"It's frustrating when you sign a deal and people expect a lot of things from you but for health reasons, you cannot do it," he said. "I would love to have a good season just to feel better about myself. That's what I'm looking for; that's why I've been working so hard."
Hennessey leaves in 2nd inning with elbow pain PG 10