Loewen looking for breakthrough year

Loewen looking for breakthrough year

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Adam Loewen, perpetual prospect and ace-in-the-making, has held that status for so long that he's even beginning to buy into it. Despite pitching in the big leagues in each of the last two seasons, Loewen is still trying to justify the hype and prove to himself and his opponents just how good he can be.

"It remains to be seen," Loewen said. "I really haven't had a full year in the big leagues yet. I pretty much feel like a rookie going out there every day, and that's pretty much what I want to do. Until I can do that, I haven't proven anything."

Loewen's last season was cut short by a stress fracture in his left elbow, and Baltimore's decision to rebuild has cast his progress in a new light. Much like his team, Loewen could experience some adversity this season only to be much better for it when 2009 rolls around.

Strangely enough, his high standing in scouting circles may have adversely affected his ascension to the Majors. Loewen, the fifth overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, was given a Major League contract as an enticement to sign. Paradoxically, that meant he had to be exposed to big league bats before he was ready.

Loewen struggled with his command in his first two Minor League seasons, but the Orioles jumped him up the ladder in the third year because the clock was ticking. He made his big league debut as a 22-year-old and took some lumps in the Majors, and then his consolidation season was interrupted by a non-contact injury to his pitching elbow.

Now he needs to prove that he can stay healthy and that he's used his time off to his advantage.

"It was like a huge, long offseason," Loewen said. "I tried to keep myself occupied. I did the best I could and just tried to keep myself healthy so I could be in this position right now. I've had no problems, so I'm feeling good about that."

Loewen, who will turn 24 just two weeks into the season, has plenty of things to feel good about. He's still throwing his fastball in the low 90s, and he's still growing into his sturdy 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame. He has plenty of believers in his own clubhouse, and there are plenty of analysts who think he can help fill the gap left by departed staff ace Erik Bedard.

And he'll have plenty of chances to do it. Loewen is out of options and can't be sent to the Minors without passing through waivers, and the Orioles are determined to let him learn on the job -- no matter how long it takes. As of now, he is penciled into the rotation alongside Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera and veteran Steve Trachsel.

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"He's one of those guys we're counting on to take the ball every fifth day," said manager Dave Trembley. "It certainly would help our cause, since we're trying to re-establish ourselves with good starting pitching."

"All I know is he has good stuff, and all young pitchers go through trying times," added pitching coach Rick Kranitz. "I'm sure he'll have a few ups and downs, but as long as [he learns] from it -- especially [the] mistakes -- he'll be fine."

The main things keeping Loewen from big league success are command and control. He's flashed enough stuff to strike out hitters and keep them on their heels, but he's also walked enough to make things difficult on himself. That's been a problem for him at every stage of his pro career, and he'll have to iron it out against the world's toughest hitters.

Loewen, who had a 20-19 record and a 3.69 ERA in the Minors, made just nine starts for Double-A Bowie and three at Triple-A Ottawa before making it to the Majors. He's made 25 starts with the Orioles and knows that while he's in a vulnerable portion of his career, he's also in a great position to step forward and make the most of his opportunity.

"It's a tough league, and I've pitched in a fair amount of games, but there's a long way to go," he said about his incremental progress in his first two tours of the American League. "Greg Maddux is in his 23rd year and probably still learning stuff. He probably knows more than anybody else, but he still has to make adjustments."

Loewen struggled in his first spring start, walking four of the seven batters he faced against the Florida Marlins on Thursday. But he shook that off as inconsequential, saying that he was glad to be back on the mound and excited for his next start.

Perhaps nobody's had a better perspective on Loewen's growth than Ramon Hernandez, who has been the full-time catcher during each of Loewen's seasons in Baltimore. The veteran -- who's worked with such pitchers as Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy -- said that you never reach a point where you don't have to prove yourself in the big leagues.

"I think we all do. I include myself also," said Hernandez, a former All-Star who's in his third season with the Orioles. "We all try to prove ourselves. We try to do the best we can do. It doesn't matter that it's a Spring Training game. ... People say that we don't care, but we do. We're trying to get ready, [and] we're trying to do things right."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.