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Less than 48 hours after news broke that the Orioles were promoting Kevin Gausman to the big leagues, it’s safe to say the hype machine has been in overdrive ever since.
Hours before his Thursday night debut in Toronto, fans and media continued to debate the merits of whether Gausman should be in the majors after making just eight starts for Double-A Bowie and 13 professional starts overall. The decision is viewed by some as an act of desperation as Gausman becomes the 11th starting pitcher the Orioles have sent to the hill before Memorial Day as part of a struggling rotation.
Some have even gone as far as debating how much money Gausman will command as a “Super Two” arbitration-eligible player — before he even threw his first pitch in the major leagues.
I even heard a rumor earlier Thursday that the powdered mini-donuts the 22-year-old right-hander likes to superstitiously eat between innings will be renamed “Gausmans” in tribute to the former LSU standout.
Truthfully, there’s no way of knowing whether executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette is making the right call in promoting the 2012 first-round pick less than a year after he was taken with the fourth overall selection of the amateur draft. His performance against the Blue Jays on Thursday night doesn’t change that, either.
The comparisons have already been made with last August’s promotion of 20-year-old third baseman Manny Machado, but no two players are the same. What that decision did tell you, however, was the Orioles’ willingness to take calculated risks with players in their farm system in order to win.
Conventional wisdom suggests even a college pitcher isn’t ready for the big leagues after 13 starts in the minors, but nothing about Gausman’s ability appears conventional. A mid-to-upper-90s fastball and superb changeup projected Gausman as a top draft pick last year, but the improvement of his slider as a real factor in his repertoire was exactly what the Orioles needed to see.
“I definitely improved,” said Gausman of his time with Double-A Bowie. “I think the biggest thing has probably been my slider improved more than anything, just being able to throw it in different situations. I’ve talked kind of all year about kind of learning different ways to throw it in different situations, so that’s definitely something I’ve learned how to do more than anything else.”
Even in spring training, the Orioles took an extra-long look at Gausman, which provided all the information you needed to know that he was a real option for the 2013 season and the club wanted to expose him to the major-league clubhouse. Appearing in seven Grapefruit League games and making two starts, Gausman pitched to a 3.94 earned run average in 16 innings of work before he was finally reassigned to minor-league camp on March 28. Some were already convinced he was one of their best five starting pitchers, but there were enough imperfections in addition to his lack of experience that made it clear Gausman would start the season in the minors.
Unlike fellow top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy last season, the older Gausman showed superb command (49 strikeouts to five walks) at Double-A Bowie and has a solid time to the plate, the latter being a major point of emphasis for the organization that augments All-Star catcher Matt Wieters’ ability to throw out so many runners on the bases. Gausman fields his position well and pitched in more pressure situations in the Southeastern Conference than the typical minor leaguer encounters at any level shy of the majors.
“We’ll see how it plays up here,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys that had low walk totals not have them up here. I’ve seen guys have high walk totals down there, and with more aggressive hitters, they went down up here. It’s a different kind of hitter up here. They’re here because they can hit. So, we’ll see.”
Do any of those strengths mean Gausman is ready for prime time? Of course not, but you never really know if a prospect is ready until he advances to a higher level, regardless of how dramatic the jump. It’s the reason why so many “can’t-miss” prospects have missed over the years. It’s an inexact science and as Showalter likes to often remind us, these are human beings with emotions and games aren’t played on paper.
Would another four weeks or two months really do that much to help Gausman if he’s already the best option the Orioles have among their starters in the minor leagues? His ability to improve his slider in such a short span of time reflects the kind of learning curve that should allow Gausman to make adjustments quickly as major league hitters learn the book on him over his first handful of starts.
It’s impossible not to have at least the slightest concern of rushing Gausman too quickly and hurting his psyche, but Showalter took a pragmatic approach in addressing that very question on Wednesday. And everything about Gausman suggests he’s a confident young man who’s up to the challenge mentally.
“It’s like I’ve said many times, you can’t screw up the good ones,” Showalter said. “They’re going to seek their level. And we think Kevin sooner or later will seek his level. We hope it’s soon.”
Yes, his quick route to the majors raises eyebrows and goes against the norm, but the Orioles think they have someone extraordinary on their hands who breaks the mold of conventional.
Thursday night does nothing in determining whether Gausman is truly ready or not, but the right-hander did everything within his power to make a difficult decision as easy as possible for the organization. And they were willing to pull the trigger when it became apparent that Gausman was their best option from below.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much and just go out there and keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Gausman said prior to his first career start. “Throw strikes and just try to pitch my game.”
Perhaps not thinking about it too much is good advice for us all if his talent is as special as advertised.