McFarland making most of opportunity in Baltimore
For Orioles in need of pitchers, 23-year-old has done more than stick around
BALTIMORE -- Every time 23-year-old rookie T.J. McFarland makes the run out from the bullpen to the pitcher's mound, it is an experience. Whether in Seattle, New York, Oakland or home in Baltimore, McFarland will throw his warmup pitches, come off the mound and survey the stadium, allowing himself to briefly be a fan as he does a quick turnaround and thinks: "This is unbelievable."
"Then I shut it off," McFarland said. "It's business, and it doesn't matter who is in the batter's box; I shut it down. I give myself a second to take it all in before I put my foot on the rubber, and then it's gone. I've always been able to turn it on and turn it off."
That ability to zone in is one of many reasons McFarland, a Rule 5 Draft pick from Cleveland this winter, has been able to stick around. One of this spring's final decisions, McFarland made Baltimore's Opening Day roster as part of the team's outstanding bullpen and will have to stay on the 25-man roster all season to stay in the organization.
"Don't tell him, but he's one of the better rookies I've been around," Orioles reliever Darren O'Day said of McFarland, who pitched to a 2.95 ERA in his first nine games. "He's really on top of stuff, not just on the field; off the field, he fits in well. He's a social guy, always got something funny to say.
"To go straight from the Minor leagues to the big leagues, to be a Rule 5 guy on a good team is really tough."
Particularly with the way this Orioles team has relied on the relievers. The O's bullpen picked up 545 1/3 innings last season -- fourth-most in baseball -- and Baltimore joined Oakland as the only two American League teams to have a winning record and be in the top half of relief innings pitched.
That trend has continued in 2013, with the Orioles down two starters to injury in Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez, and with right-hander Jason Hammel, a Final Vote All-Star candidate last season, struggling to go deep into games. Again, the club's young starters -- with the exception of Chris Tillman -- have yet to establish Major League consistency, with Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Steve Johnson all in Triple-A, leaving the Orioles to rely on comeback efforts from Freddy Garcia and Jair Jurrjens.
In other words, there is nowhere to hide McFarland, and he pitched 18 1/3 innings through Thursday's off-day, giving the team a long man it went most of last year without. And while McFarland is not a candidate for any coming starts -- Jurrjens is expected to be added to the roster for Saturday -- manager Buck Showalter did not rule out that scenario down the road.
"Another part of the season, Mac would be a better option, if that makes any sense," Showalter said of McFarland, who was a starter his entire Minor League career. "We are trying to win games, obviously, but I'm also trying to create a niche for him that allows us to evaluate him properly.
"He's going to get all the innings he wants before it's over. It may be hard to see that right now. And it could be in another capacity down the road. But so far, so good with him."
McFarland was left off Cleveland's 40-man roster this winter, leaving him unprotected for the Rule 5 Draft, and the decision hurt. He had started 2012 with Double-A Akron, going 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA in 10 starts that included a complete game before he was promoted to Triple-A Columbus.
In 17 starts there, McFarland went 8-6 with a 4.82 ERA, allowing 55 earned runs on 112 hits and 33 walks in 102 2/3 innings pitched. He pitched particularly well the final month of the season, turning in a strong effort against the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk. Baltimore took note, and the organization took the $20,000 gamble, selecting McFarland with the 23rd pick at the Winter Meetings' Rule 5 Draft.
"I was like, 'All right, this is it. This is my chance; I can't blow it,'" McFarland said of his mindset as he went full steam ahead in offseason workouts that started at Bo Jackson's Elite Sports Dome in a Chicago suburb. "I worked as hard, if not harder, than I did previous years. And it's been paying off."
It took some time for McFarland to see that work come to fruition, as he struggled through the first few weeks of Spring Training. The Orioles, hesitant to start fixing things right away, let the lefty pitch the way he wanted initially, and then pitching coach Rick Adair sat down and talked with McFarland, taking him to the bullpen to experiment with a few things.
The biggest adjustment was McFarland's alignment, and the two worked on setting up McFarland's hips more toward the plate, allowing for more downward action and late life.
"He has great aptitude and understanding," Adair said of McFarland, who saw results immediately and turned around his Grapefruit League season, turning the heads of the Orioles in the process.
"He's displayed all the attributes that you look for in any refined Major League pitcher," he added. "Not that he's that refined, but his preparation, his attention to detail, the way he fits in with the ballclub, all have been great. He's got plenty of ability. It was a great Rule 5 Draft [pick]. I'm overly impressed with everything he does."
McFarland has taken to the bullpen more than he thought, although the Orioles are not eliminating the possibility of his starting. Adair said there was potential for McFarland to add a fourth pitch and more deception to his delivery if the that's the route the organization wants to go. But his success in long relief and the club's great need for it trumps that right now.
That's fine with McFarland, who is sincere when he says he will do whatever the team asks of him. On his first Major League roster, he has managed to mesh well with a close-knit Orioles club, carrying the bullpen's backpack of goodies and growing quite an interesting mustache.
The team has made him feel like a part of things, and McFarland said that had gone a long way in helping him adjust over a life-changing six months.
"It's a high-pressure situation; I have to perform," McFarland said of being a Rule 5 player the Orioles are trying to keep. "If I don't perform, they can't afford to have this guy they are working on. So, I think I've done a good job. Basically what it comes down to is me getting outs. Hopefully I can continue to do that and stay on the team."
"What he's doing for us has been impressive," Showalter said. "The guys in the bullpen really like the way he's handled himself other than pitching, too. This guy has fit in nice with what we are trying to do here."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.