Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players they hope will help reverse that before long.
The twice-weekly "One for the Future," which began earlier this month, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.
Next, a look at hard-throwing right-hander Branden Kline, who returned from missing nearly three years with elbow injuries to solidify himself as a legitimate bullpen piece in a matter of weeks.
A Frederick native who the Orioles drafted in the second round out of Virginia in 2012, Kline wasn’t healthy in 2013 when he made his full-season debut with Low-A Delmarva, but got himself on track for his hometown Keys in 2014. He had a 3.84 ERA in 23 starts that summer before getting a taste of Double-A at the end of the season, and that winter, he set about improving even more.
Working back at Virginia in the offseason, Kline embraced a heavy ball throwing program that increased his arm strength, and he came back the following spring throwing much harder, gaining internet acclaim in the process. But despite the allure of such a program — which strengthens the arm and prevents injuries — Kline made eight starts with a 3.66 ERA for Double-A Bowie in 2015 before his elbow began to ache.
He tried to rehabilitate it all summer, but had Tommy John surgery that fall. A setback with a nerve issue required a pair of surgeries to clean that up, and he didn’t pitch in a game until the beginning of 2018.
Kline’s relatively straight fastball and some of the issues he had missing bats meant that, after such a long layoff, he returned as a reliever — and has thrived. He held opponents scoreless in 10 of 12 appearances with a 1.31 ERA for Frederick, where he was assigned to get himself back on the mound and get a good feeling going. He certainly did that, striking out 23 in 20 1/3 innings with a 1.11 WHIP.
Kline allowed a home run in his return to Bowie, but has otherwise been just as strong there. He’s converted nine of 10 save opportunities at the back end of the Bowie bullpen, with a 1.87 ERA with a 1.01 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 33 innings. He’s pitched the ninth inning, or multiple innings, depending on the needs of the team, and has held opponents to a .202 batting average.
He’s done all this with a solid fastball/slider/changeup mix, with the changeup keeping lefties off his fastball and his fastball running up to 99 mph in his most recent outing, sitting around 95-96 mph.
Before long, the Orioles will clear out some roster spots in the bullpen via trades, and something that not only Kline but many players and coaches in the organization have hoped for will come to fruition: Kline will get his big league chance.
He’s easily one of the most popular players in the system with his peers and those who have worked with him, and even if he’s not track to be a starter, Kline has a sure major league future as a mid-to-late-inning arm.
His added fastball velocity has helped him miss bats, and his background as a starter leaves his secondary pitches in good shape even with the time missed. Having all those at his disposal means Kline could be deployed in several bullpen roles — long or short, high-leverage or low.
The Orioles will certainly have a need for it going forward, with Zach Britton traded and Brad Brach set to hit free agency. The Orioles have given bullpen chances to Jhan Mariñez, Ryan Meisinger and Paul Fry as the relief corps has been thinned by injury this year. Kline is probably next on that list.
Considering his premium velocity — Kline’s fastball is one of the best in the organization, especially out of the bullpen — and his success, the Orioles won’t be able to sneak Kline through the Rule 5 draft again this winter, so he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason.
The Orioles can do that once the trade rubble has settled, and in doing so, not only reward Kline for his perseverance, but help the team get a look at who might be part of their next lockdown bullpen.
One for the future