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David Haehnel came to the Orioles organization as a polished arm regarded as having a very limited ceiling. He had just spent his final year at the University of Illinois-Chicago trying to put himself on the radars of major league Scouting Directors. Though he moved back and forth between starting and relieving, Haehnel managed to get in ninety quality innings; with 9.2 strikeouts, 2.4 walks, and 0.6 homeruns allowed per nine innings pitched.
The Orioles took notice of the lanky, 6'4'' lefty and drafted him in the 8th round of the 2004 draft. The organization shifted him to relief full-time and set him loose on the New York-Penn League. While it's not uncommon for college-trained pitchers to do well in the low minors, Haehnel was absolutely outstanding. He finished his first professional season with 16 saves, 61 strikeouts, 11 walks, and 1 homerun allowed in just 37.3 innings. If that wasn't enough, his sparkling 1.24 ERA secured his place on organizational depth charts.
Haehnel's second season was more of the same. He split his season between Low-A Delmarva and Hi-A Frederick, again dominating both levels. When all was said and done, he had collected 18 saves, 71 strikeouts, 20 walks, with 2 homeruns allowed across just over 68 innings. His combined ERA was just a tick over 2.00 and many believed he could be a part of the Orioles bullpen as soon as the end of 2006.
Haehnel began his age 24 season in the same place he ended his previous season at; pitching for the Frederick Keys. Only this time, he was in the starting rotation. The Orioles saw a pitcher that worked with an 87-90 MPH fastball and a polished changeup and decided to expand his role. The organization believed that the move would force him to work on his slider, which can get slurvy at times, and allow him to gain more experience through increased usage.
To put it kindly, the move did not go well. His strikeout rate plummeted to 6.66 per nine innings pitched and his walk rate nearly matched it at over 5 per game. And while Haehnel has always had flyball tendencies, he was unable to keep them from leaving the ballpark at an above average rate for the first time in his career, allowing 17 in 115 innings.
All is not lost, however. The effects of switching from relieving to starting (or vice versa) can be drastically different depending on the individual. Frederick Pitching Coach Blaine Beatty explained to ITW, "There was a period in there where he was struggling and I thought it was starting to get to him, but he’s obviously persevered. I think we’ve conveyed to him that the numbers are not as important as him developing his stuff and I think he’s relaxed and let himself go."
In retrospect, it's easy to see that turning David Haehnel into a starter, for whatever reason, was a bad idea. But that doesn't mean he can't come back with a strong season next year. He'll just have to do it in the bullpen. Blaine Beatty put it best when asked if he saw starting as Haehnel's long-term role; "No I don't," he said without hesitation, "but I think it’s shown him how to get in a rhythm, how to use his secondary stuff and how to set up hitters."
David Haehnel will have to exhibit all of those traits from the start of 2007. Entering his age 25 season, another bad season could bury him in an organization fast becoming known for its pitching depth.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com