SARASOTA, Fla. — As pitchers conducted their first workout of the spring at the Orioles' minor league camp Monday, the beginning of two comebacks took place in the bullpen area of the Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park.
It's been nearly four years since the Orioles made highly touted high schoolers Matt Hobgood and Mychal Givens their top two picks in the 2009 draft. Both have struggled to live up to expectations, but they both arrive in camp this spring with renewed hope for their careers.
Hobgood, the No. 5 overall pick, who has been limited to 42 games in his minor league career because of inconsistency and injury, threw his first bullpen session of the spring and just his second since season-ending rotator-cuff surgery 11 months ago. He threw a brief bullpen session in instructional league in October.
“I've been looking forward to [this] since I had surgery in April and rehabbed the entire year and really threw a few innings in 2011,” Hobgood said. “So basically it's been a few years since I've pitched and almost four years since I've pitched pain-free. I've worked really hard this offseason both in my arm and on my body, so I was ready to report to camp.”
Givens — the winner of the Jackie Robinson Award as the nation's top high school player going into his senior season — was touted as an athletic prospect who could throw a mid-90s fastball and play shortstop. After struggling through his first three seasons as a position player, Givens — the Orioles' second-round pick in 2009 — is now converting back to pitching.
The last time Givens threw from the mound before Monday was in his final high school game, when he hit 96 mph in the sixth inning of a Florida state championship game in the New York Mets' spring training park, Tradition Field, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
After struggling to a .243/.330/.306 batting line at low Class-A Delmarva in 2012, the Orioles began developing Givens as a pitcher.
“They've been talking about keeping it in mind since I actually started playing about pitching, just don't forget that that's in my back pocket,” Givens said. “So it wasn't like it was a surprised thing. They've been talking to me about it every year, but right now they think I can be a pitcher in their organization so it's all good.”
If the two can turn their careers around, it would give a boost to a minor league system that Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said must be instrumental to the organization's sustained success.
Both will be under the care of Orioles director of pitching development Rick Peterson this spring.
Of the Orioles top 11 picks in the 2009 draft, just two have remained in the system and advanced past Class-A Frederick.
Givens and Hobgood hope to change that.
Hobgood threw just two bullpen sessions last spring before being shut down. Early in his pro career, he had been criticized for his conditioning.
This spring, the 6-foot-4 Hobgood — who threw 25 pitches, all fastballs, off the mound at about 80 to 85 percent — has cut his body fat down to 11 percent, a number that was in the teens in his early years and is now the lowest it's been in years.
Hobgood owns a career 4-15 record and 5.48 ERA and hasn't pitched higher than Delmarva, which was back in 2010. In 2011, he went 0-6 with a 10.46 ERA at short-season Class-A Aberdeen.
Despite his struggles on the mound, Hobgood said having an entire season of baseball taken away last year hurt more.
“It's rough,” Hobgood said. “It's definitely a humbling experience to say the least. … I can't believe it's 2013. I can't believe I'm going into my fifth season technically, but I'm excited. All that's behind me and I've learned a lot from it, the things I can't do and the things I need to do, so I feel good.”
Hobgood said he hasn't yet received word on an inning limit or where he will start the season, but he's confident that he's finally healthy for the first time in years.
“In my mind, I know I'm OK,” Hobgood said. “I've put in the work with my body and my arm and mentally. I know that there was some time when I was down about that, but that's behind me and I've worked really hard to get where I'm at now. My No. 1 goal to start off is to stay healthy and continue moving up and continue getting the arm strong.”
As for Givens, he needs to find his comfort zone as a pitcher. While he has a mid-90s fastball, his unconventional low three-quarters delivery makes his fastball flat, so Peterson will focus on straightening out his torso.
“I think it's going to give him a better angle in the strike zone,” Peterson said. “And No. 2, it's a health issue, especially because the harder you throw, the more difficult it is and the more challenging it is to make sure you're technique is efficient.”
Peterson, formerly a pitching coach for the Oakland A's, New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers, has worked before with position players converting to pitchers, including Roberto Hernandez and Jason Isringhausen, who were both converted catchers.
Givens said he's looking forward to working with Peterson.
“In high school, I just did it off my athletic ability and I had great coaching,” he said. “But here now I have someone with a lot of minor and major league experience so he can help me tweak a little bit of stuff. I had good stuff in high school, but now I feel like I have great coaches behind me and that can make me a lot better. And that makes me more comfortable to get hitters out.”
The Orioles haven't told Givens whether he will be used as a starter or reliever, but Givens is optimistic about the change.
“The biggest obstacle is just getting back into pitchers' shape,” he said. “Instead of coming in and being ready as an infielder, the obstacle is getting your legs strong and get your stamina and go deep into games instead of just going short whether I'm a reliever or not.
“It felt pretty good,” Givens said of working with Peterson on Monday. “It's not like it's something I haven't done before so it feels natural to me. It felt great. I just have to get back to it and start hitting my spots and get comfortable again. … Right now I'm going to focus on pitching and getting better and hopefully I can make it to the big leagues as soon as possible.”