Rich Hill: The Long Road Back to the Majors

Erik Schultz@eschultz530Correspondent IMay 21, 2009

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Rich Hill #51 of the Baltimore Orioles poses during photo day at the Orioles spring training complex on February 23, 2009 in Ft. lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

One year and fourteen days. 

That was how long it had been since Rich Hill's last start in the Major Leagues. 

Until this past Saturday. 

Prior to recording the win in his start in Kansas City on Saturday, his last start was on May 2, 2008, with the Chicago Cubs.  In that game, he gave up fewer runs (one) than he did in his impressive Orioles debut. 

The problem—Hill walked four hitters.  In the first inning.  He didn't even make it out of that first inning, being pulled after just 27 pitches, only ten of which were strikes.

Cubs Manager Lou Piniella had seen enough.  The organization had too.  Despite a knee-buckling curve ball, Hill simply could not find the plate with this fastball, giving hitters no reason to worry about the curve. 

After making five starts early in the 2008 season, Hill was sent down to Triple-A Iowa.  The Cubs hoped he would be able to work out his control issues there.  They hoped Hill would be able to improve on his ability to locate the fastball, which was consistently missing high.  There was no set timetable for Hill's return to the majors, but there seemed to be confidence among the Cubs that Hill would figure things out, and return sometime in the middle of the '08 season.

Hill proved them wrong, very wrong. 

Not only did he never make it back to Chicago, Hill actually found himself in Single-A ball by the end of the 2008 season.  The control issues remained at each stop along the way.  Hill walked 28 batters in seven starts at Iowa, while pitching only 26 innings.  At Daytona, the Cubs A club, Hill walked 11 in three outings, pitching 12 1/3 innings there.

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The problem was simple.  The solution was not.  The Cubs organization was frustrated with the continued struggles of their once prized pitching prospect.   At 28 years old, the patience aspect of the development process was pretty much out the window.  They did not feel the need to hold onto Hill forever.  

Andy MacPhail, the Orioles GM, knew he had an opportunity to buy low from his former organization.  He made a deal for Hill in February, getting him in exchange for a player who has still yet to be named.  Hill's salary for 2009 is only $445,000.  That is less than ten percent of that of fellow starter Koji Uehara, who, prior to the 2009 season, had yet to make a start in the Major Leagues.

Going into Spring Training, the plan for Hill was to have him begin the season in the starting rotation, perhaps being slotted as high as third.  Not only was the potential there, it had already been proved at the major-league level. 

MacPhail saw what Hill did for the Cubs in 2007, when he went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 32 starts.  He also finished fifth in the National League in strikeouts that year with 183, while allowing less than three walks per nine innings pitched. 

That plan was curtailed when Hill suffered a right elbow injury in March.  It seemed like the nothing-to-lose move by MacPhail might turn out to be a nothing-to-gain move as well.

However, on April 25, Hill was able to return to the mound, at Frederick.  After one start for the A ballclub, he went on to AAA Norfolk, where he gave up just two runs in three starts, totaling 13 1/3 innings.  This was enough for the Orioles to feel comfortable in giving Hill the starting nod last Saturday, when he was eligible to return from the Disabled List.

Two runs, seven hits, two walks, six strikeouts, in 5 2/3 innings.  Plus, he was the winning pitcher.

A pretty good start, especially for an Oriole starting pitcher.  Certainly impressive for someone making their season debut.  Manager Dave Trembley called it the best performance by an Oriole starter so far this year.

With one successful start behind him, Hill will take the mound again on Friday against the Washington Nationals.  It will be interesting to see how Hill pitches in his second start, in front of a more local crowd in Washington, and with a little higher expectations. 

Let's hope the road for Rich Hill doesn't take him away from Baltimore anytime in the near future.

Statistics used in this article obtained from the Baltimore Orioles team page at mlb.com