O's prospect Patton ready to push himself

O's prospect Patton ready to push himself

SARASOTA, Fla. -- There was a time Troy Patton was the most promising pitcher in the Astros' farm system, a highly touted lefty who earned a big league callup a week before his 22nd birthday to replace an injured Roy Oswalt.

Today, those waning days of the 2007 season feel eons away for Patton. Part of Baltimore's prospect package in the Miguel Tejada trade, Patton was acquired despite having a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He attempted a strengthening program in the spring of '08, before ultimately deciding on corrective surgery that sidelined him for the year.

While Patton was rehabbing at the Orioles' Minor League complex in Sarasota, Baltimore was busy stockpiling young arms. And after a strong start ended in burnout last season, Patton is hopeful 2010 will be the year he can reestablish himself among the O's top-tier pitching prospects.

"I made a good solid effort to take care of myself a little more this offseason, so I can just carry it through the season," Patton said. "Last year, I just got around 100 innings and was fatigued [and] real tired."

In addition to conditioning, Patton's new regimen includes toning down any off-the-field activities, a measure that he says will help put extra focus on having a successful baseball season.

And, what exactly would a successful baseball season be?

"[To] pitch like I have before the injury," Patton said.

A southpaw starter with a low-90s fastball, Patton's bread and butter has always been pinpoint control and a smart approach to the game. While he doesn't overpower hitters, Patton does a good job of mixing it up with his fastball, curveball and change, and progressed rapidly through Houston's farm system.

In an Astros organization short of quality young arms, Patton ended the 2006 and '07 seasons as Houston's second-best prospect, piquing the interest of Baltimore, who was looking to deal Tejada for a prospect package. The Orioles took Patton despite his labrum tear, and for the first time in his career the young lefty spent his days alone in Sarasota, working his way back with Minor League pitching instructor Dave Schmidt and rehab/pitching instructor Larry Jaster.

"It was hard," Patton said of the 2008 season. "To come in here and not contribute for a whole year, even with the Double-A and Triple-A teams. I didn't get to meet anybody. It was just like a wasted year."

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The O's wanted to be cautious, and in 2009, they sent Patton to Double-A, where he dominated, going 6-2 with a 1.99 ERA. Triple-A was a different story. Hitters teed off Patton's offerings, which had dipped in velocity, and after going 1-3 with a 6.45 ERA, he was shut down.

"We wanted to make sure he got enough innings to get his work in," said Schmidt, who points out that Patton's velocity dip was normal. "We didn't want to push him to the point where he would get injured again."

It would also take some time to get Patton mentally confident to throw again. With limited mound experience going into last year's Spring Training, Patton admits facing big league hitters in camp "messed with him" a little bit. That uncertainty is gone this spring.

"If I can't push the envelope now, then when can I?" Patton said. "It's been two years. So if it's not going to happen now, it's never going to happen. I might as well push it as far as it can go."

Given Patton's fatigue last season and that his effectiveness --even pre-injury -- wanes the second and third time through a lineup, it isn't a stretch to project him as a reliever. While Schmidt and the rest of the Orioles' organization attest he is still considered a starter, Patton is open to the idea.

"I've been wondering the same [thing], if there's an option," he said. "If that would work for me, I'm open to anything. They haven't approach me or said anything yet."

Given his small size and crafty left-handed nature, Patton is similar to the Rays' J.P. Howell, a former starter who has found his niche in the bullpen. The pair actually met when Patton took a recruiting trip to the University of Texas, where Howell was a rotation standout in 2004.

While there's no magic formula for finding starters that would be more adept in the bullpen, Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said, in Howell's case there were several factors.

"The size, the physical size -- it's just difficult," Hickey said. "Just think about how many guys the size of J.P. or the size of Patton are left-handed pitchers that are successful starters?

"Also, the velocity does have a little bit of an uptick as you go to the bullpen. If you're a little short on velocity as a starter, now you go to the bullpen you know you are only going to pitch that one, maybe two innings, it picks up a couple miles an hour. And now you become a little more competitive."

Given that Howell wasn't a successful starter and the Rays' rotation had plenty of young arms, the move -- made in the spring of 2008 -- was a logical choice for Tampa Bay at the time. While the Orioles have a wealth of pitching prospects -- including three projected starters under the age of 25 -- there hasn't been any talk about Patton being a situational lefty or longer reliever.

"So, I'm just going to assume I'm a starter," Patton.

Which means the 24-year-old has hit work cut out for him. With two rotational candidates from last year, David Hernandez and Jason Berken, likely getting the bump to Triple-A, along with top prospect Jake Arrieta, Patton is projected to be part of promising Minor League staff.

"We've got a lot of good pitchers with great arms," Patton said. "I enjoy watching them and hope they succeed. Just because they succeed doesn't mean I can't."

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