Jason Berken was as endearingly bad as a player could be in 2009. He floundered as a starter last season with 11 straight losses at one point, trotted out every week with adjectives like “gritty,” “gutty,” and “tough,” words that mean one thing for baseball players, and they don’t usually come with eye-popping numbers. Use those words to describe a basketball player and I can tell you he is white, slow, and doesn’t have a great shot. Use those to describe a football player and he is unathletic, but very smart on the field. Use those to describe a pitcher, and you have a 6.54 ERA, a 6-12 record, and a fan base that doesn’t expect to see much of him in Baltimore the next year. Berken, however, didn’t seem to want those words to define his career.
But perhaps we all underestimated Jason Berken when, after only barely missing out on the 5th starter job out of spring training, settled into one of the more reliable relievers that the Orioles have had all season. Incidentally, the pitcher who won that 5th spot, David Hernandez, would eventually join him in the pen. Personally I never expected much out of Berken but I had admired how he came out every week with a smile on his face and didn’t allow the losses and mounting disaster get him down. It seems to have served him well as he went to the DL today with a 3.03 ERA in 41 appearances covering 62.1 innings. He will attempt to rehab his torn labrum but could wind up with surgery if it doesn’t respond. Regardless, he will certainly be ready for Spring Training next year.
It could have been even better. He went to the break with a 1.95 ERA on July 11, before he started to experience some discomfort that helped lead to a 7.71 ERA since the break. All 4 of his blown saves also came in his nine appearances since the All-Star Break. Like most pitchers, the coaches had to find out that he was hurting based on watching him pitch rather than him talk to the trainers, but I am just glad it was recognized. If Berken can come back healthy in 2011, the Orioles could be looking at having one bullpen spot locked down.
I, like many Orioles fans, have seen guys like Berken spend a year with the club, flame out after they are pushed unto the majors, and spend the rest of their careers bouncing between AAA and spot duty on some other major league team’s roster. For this team to be able to salvage anything out of this player, much less letting him turn into a reliable major league reliever, is a boon for a team that has seen its bullpen turn out to be more of a roller coaster than anyone expected back in March. In a season that has seen dozens of unfulfilled expectations, it has been good to see Jason Berken make the most of the opportunity that being on a losing team provides him.
In his place the Orioles will get to see the prospect they received from the Marlins in return for Will Ohman, Rick VandenHurk. VandenHurk has been incredible in three starts for Norfolk since the trade, but he has been a classic AAAA pitcher in his brief career- explosive in the minors but unable to translate that to the majors. But who knows, perhaps he, like Berken, will make the most of his opportunity.