Back in high school, I was a so-so sidearm pitcher.
Topping out around 81-83 MPH with a sinker that disappeared at the same frequency as the Titanic, I mixed in a changeup and slider, both of which would have fell at a 20 out of 80 on the proper scale. Still, I had a realistic chance of playing at the junior college level, or even at a middling DII school.
So, I thought it best to attend a showcase here or there, one of which happened to be in Denver in the winter of 2009. Having attended high school in Colorado Springs, the area was surprisingly flush with both legit collegiate and draft-worthy talent, but playing baseball only 45 minutes away from Denver, there was always one name that dwarfed the rest.
That man being Kevin Gausman.
As my regular-looking 6'3" frame strolled into some high school gym, I saw a few faces I'd recognized from the newspaper, while also realizing the pro scouts in attendance probably weren't there to see the guy who'd never had a feature in the Denver Post, or that lacked the 90+ MPH fastball. So I stretched and played a little catch before I casually prayed to the baseball gods that I'd throw enough strikes to keep me from being "that guy" at the showcase. One of the coaches running the event huddled us 60-some high schoolers before he read off the first names to throw, and boom, there he was. The Gaus.
Even then, he had a different look to him. Gausman, just at outer appearance, looked like a pitcher. Towering 6'4", pairing long arms and a solid build, there was no one else in the gym that could match his presence. I knew who he was without a blink.
The local teens, myself included, understood the reputation of Colorado baseball and saw Gausman as the most righteous of outliers. The LSU verbal commit who was surely to be a top five to ten round pick garnered a cult following he probably didn't fully understand at the time. Even then, I believed it to be more appropriate to creepily stare at his face and gush than I did to properly listen to the instructions of the coach. All I heard was "blah, blah, blah" while I fixated my thoughts on the first real pro prospect I'd ever had the fortune of sharing the same breathing space.
Naturally, he read off the names and directed us to our respective locations, and of course, to the right-adjacent pitching mound, there was Gausman, who incurred a trail of major league employees and JUGS radar guns.
For me, it was over. Whatever the fee my dad had paid to get me into this showcase had officially been wasted. What is some semi-portly, soft-throwing, sidearming right-hander going to do to reflect the well-deserved attention away from Gausman? Nothing, it turned out to be.
Rather than sulk, I opted not to use the allotted 30 pitches as a personal showcase, but instead as a moment to indulge the area's most talented player who put on a display my eyes had yet to behold. At the commencement of our session, I purposefully rubbed imaginary sweat off my forehead, allowing just enough time to watch Gausman deliver the first fastball. The gym echoed with a majority of fainting pops of some nine or ten catcher's mitts, but not Gausman. There was that distinctive sound that only comes when a 95 MPH fastball connects with leather.
One pitch was all it took for me to freelance a plan that corresponded his delivery with the finish of mine so I could walk back to mound and sneak a peek of his. Gausman flashed a mega-fastball, wipeout curveball and a changeup/splitter that created a stir behind the netting. It was well-too justified.
All it took was 30 pitches for me to see where his reputation originated, and in the process, he gained a fan for life.
Fast-forward two-plus years, where my dad and myself are sitting in front of the television watching the annual MLB Draft. Some guy named Carlos Correa goes first-overall, followed by outfielder Byron Buxton and catcher Mike Zunino. There are the Orioles sitting fourth-overall, and we have no idea who the pick is going to be. I was, and still am, not one to really follow college baseball or the draft process, so Orioles draftees are always a surprise. On walks Bud Selig, who announces "With the fourth selection in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, the Baltimore Orioles select Kevin Gausman, a right-handed pitcher out of LSU, Baton Rouge, Lousiana".
My heart sunk with excitement, which followed with a rousing of cheers in our living room. My dad and I knew not only the significance of a Colorado kid being drafted so high, but that same kid being a major face of the Orioles' future made the pick that much more compelling.
Personal spiels aside, the Orioles head into 2016 with more questions than assurances. The reassembly of Darren O'Day and Matt Wieters mixes familiarity with production, while newbie Hyun-Soo Kim brings diminished risk and accompanied potential. Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has certainly been one of the most passive-aggressive general managers this offseason, with connections to a bevy of players. The Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Yovani Gallardo speculations are becoming more annoying than enlightening, but Duquette is assuredly attempting to improve on what was the epitome of an average baseball team.
As much as we harp on an offense that was deceivingly disappointing compared to 2014, the Orioles were fatally let down by a starting staff that posted the American League's second-worst ERA (4.53) and WHIP (1.35), third-worst innings total (915.2), BB/9 (2.86) and HR/FB rate (12.6%) and the fourth-highest opponent batting average (.263). The O's were the primary beneficiaries of Chris Tillman's, Miguel Gonzalez's and Bud Norris' massive regressions, while Ubaldo Jimenez's reign of mediocrity continued.
As the Orioles are eventually to find Wei-Yin Chen, the club's most consistent producer in 2015, overpaid in another uniform, the available options to improve the starting rotation are beginning to dwindle. Yes, Gallardo remains available, but at this point of his career, he is, at best, a slightly better Miguel Gonzalez who has the qualifying offer attached to his services. After Gallardo, the free-agent pool of starters dwindles down to Mat Latos, Doug Fister and plenty of other unattractive candidates.
Inching closer to Spring Training, it appears the Orioles are facing the annual conundrum of simply hoping for the best. Tillman and Gonzalez should slightly improve, and while Jimenez has the stuff to pitch at a level conducive to his arsenal, his production is always a coin-flip. And let's not forget waiver claim Vance Worley, whose upside is as promising as his fastball. That leaves the Orioles with only one realistic above-and-beyond talent.
Kevin Gausman has been more consistently inconsistent than the Orioles and fans would hope, but to no fault of his own, he hasn't been afforded the trust a fourth-overall selection would normally be allowed. In 2014, in Gausman's first true action in his natural role, he posted an impressive 3.57 ERA (3.41 FIP), all despite adding scanty highs in WHIP (1.31) and BB% (8.0%). However, Gausman averted trouble with a lowly HR/FB rate (5.86%) and a league-average 72.8 LOB%.
Unfortunately for Gaus, he was the odd-man out when the Orioles broke camp in 2015, as the club decided to push him to the bullpen in favor of 2014 breakout studs, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, as well as Spring Training riser Ubaldo Jimenez. Rather than allowing Gausman to ride the wave of momentum and continue to spawn on the high-level talent he showed the year before, he was relegated to a lack of comfort. Gausman did not make one appearance out of the pen during the 2014 regular season, but found himself as a reliever on eight occasions this past season. With a 4.50 ERA, 9.6 BB% and 1.33 WHIP, Gausman simply looked far more out of balance than he did the year before, something that could point to his DL stint in early May.
Many folks discount the everyday routine of a big-leaguer, even more so pitchers. There are certain aspects of week-to-week, day-to-day preparation that contribute to the success of pitchers, and though that may not be as significant for some, it's likely disrupting a 24-year-old's rhythm isn't the soundest of strategies. Tendinitis in his throwing arm can't be directly attributed to his brief stint in the bullpen, but who's to say it can't? Upon his return from the disabled list, Gausman never relinquished his duty as a starter, and saw improvements over the second-half of the season.
From July to the end of September, Gausman saw his ERA drop from 5.00 to 4.01, while his K-rate actually rose from 21.2% to 22.2% as a full-time starter. Stranding runners became more frequent, as his LOB% peaked to 76.7% from 61.0%. Even his walks dropped from 7.6% to 5.7%. Gausman's biggest issue was surrendering dingers, as he ended the year with a 13.4 HR/FB%, but in the second-half of last season, the Gaus' GB/FB rate rose from 0.97 to 1.26. Though the numbers may not have been pleasing to the eye, there were certainly strides in the right direction.
The Orioles haven't seen the prototypical advances in the rotation compared to other developmental organizations such as the Cardinals or Rays, but for the first time in a long while, the O's actually have a piece in which to show off.
Yes, 2015 was disappointing in a variety of ways, but as baseball's calendar year is slowly signaling its start, the promise of Gausman can do much to outweigh the current unknowns of his fellow starters. Simply, Gausman is a special talent whose successes seem more likely than his failures. Still, as much as one can sing his praises, it's also up to him to propel the talent we've seen over the past two-plus years. As I've written before, I'm not sure we'll ever see Chris Tillman become an "ace", and as much as I like Miguel Gonzalez, he's hard to figure out. I know he dealt with shoulder tendinitis and should bounce back whether big or small, but he's still somewhat of a wild card. The Orioles were never going to be able to afford the David Price or Zack Greinke fast-passes, and there isn't a pitcher still on the market to severely turn around the Orioles' most obvious woe.
If Gausman is able to sync his stuff, command and smarts on the mound, that in itself is as valuable as any free-agent pickup or blockbuster trade. Harnessing the immensity of a power-hurling 25-year-old is how the Orioles can expect to not only break free from the chain of mediocrity, but start chipping away at the organization's established reputation as a stopgap for young pitchers. It took Andy Dufresne nearly 20 years to break out of Shawshank, and perhaps Gausman is the Orioles' rock hammer.
I'm probably more than biased when discussing Gausman and his potential impact, but that doesn't mean he can't do the same for you. I mean, we're talking about a 25-year-old homegrown starter who seems to be just scratching the surface. Is that not the kind of player a fanbase loves to love? I know what I saw in that Denver gym, and I know how I felt when the Orioles drafted Gausman.
And something tells me there is more excitement down the road.