11:35 AM PST, February 16, 2013
SARASOTA, Fla – And so ends the strange offseason saga of pitcher Jair Jurrjens, who arrived at the Orioles' spring training facility Saturday after finalizing the minor league contract that started out as a major league contract.
It's not all that complicated. Jurrjens agreed to a major league deal three weeks ago worth $1.5 million that included incentives that could have boosted the value to $4 million, but club officials obviously weren't satisfied with the results of his physical and renegotiated the contract down to a minor league deal with a major league invite to spring training.
So, you might expect him to be a bit miffed with the Orioles and more than a bit unhappy with the Atlanta Braves — the team that released him after a difficult 2012 season even though he had been one of that organization's brightest young pitchers and made the National League All-Star team just two seasons ago.
And you would be wrong.
Jurrjens just kind of shrugged off the strange contractual gymnastics, seeming to understand why the team had some serious misgivings about the strength of his right leg following 2010 knee surgery and the struggle he had last year to pitch with a quadriceps injury.
"It was a big league deal and they adjusted it because of the concern and made it a minor league deal,'' he said. "If I'm out there and can stay on the mound, I know what I can do. A lot of people know what I can do. I'm just going to come here and show everybody that i'm healthy and I can pitch again."
He was just as understanding with the decision by the Braves to give up on him, even though he had three very good seasons for them during his five years in Atlanta.
"You could say they gave up on me, but that's part of the business,'' he said. "They've got young guys in the system they wanted to give a chance. They're cheaper. Everybody's trying to be cheap this year. No hard feelings. It's part of the business. You keep moving. You keep trying to do your thing with another team."
It's hard not to be impressed with an attitude like that, but it's also hard to figure out just what's really going on here. We're talking about a guy who was 13-6 with a 2.96 ERA in 2011. He was 14-10 with a 2.60 ERA in 34 starts two years before that. There's no question that he has had trouble staying healthy for a full season, considering he's only done that twice in the last five years, but he obviously has a ton of talent and he's only 27.
That's why he is the prototypical Dan Duquette acquisition.
Low risk. High upside. The perfect I-told-you-so pitcher.
"The kid's a winning pitcher, and we're going to see if we can get him back to the form that helped him win over 50 games,'' Duquette said Saturday. "Made the All-Star team just a year ago in 2011. We'll see if we can help him regain the form that made him a good pitcher. He's a sinkerballer, plus he has a good changeup. He's young, he's 27, so there's a chance he could learn how to pitch effectively and manage the situation with his right knee."
That's nice, but if you're trying to calculate the odds of him actually helping the Orioles at the major league level this year, you have to take something else into account. The Braves are a team known far and wide for their ability to evaluate pitchers. If they think somebody's done, you have to consider the strong possibility that the guy is done.
Jurrjens' velocity has dropped significantly over the course of the last two seasons. He was very effective in 2011 after coming back from knee surgery, but only made 23 starts and was showing significant signs of decline down the stretch. His fastball — which once was clocked regularly at about 91 mph — dropped to an average of just over 88 mph last year, and his ERA blew up to 6.89 in only 11 major league appearances.
He chalks all that up to the quad injury and says that his leg is much stronger now, but that wasn't obvious to the Orioles medical staff or he probably would have gotten that major league contract.
"The knee is fine,'' Jurrjens said. "No setbacks this offseason. I was able to do everything I wanted to do. It felt good. I'm really happy with the way the offseason went. The physical was different and more stressful than I wanted it to be, but I feel good."
There's no telling how this experiment is going to turn out, but it certainly should be interesting. Jurrjens enters a very crowded competition for one of the final slots in the major league starting rotation, but he has the best statistical track record (53-37, 3.62 career ERA) of any of the dozen or so starting pitchers in camp.
His checkered medical history makes him a longshot. The minor league contract, which will allow the team to send him to Triple-A Norfolk if he doesn't force his way onto the major league roster, makes him an attractive value play with little downside.
Duquette could end up looking like a genius, or Jurrjens could go the way of Dontrelle Willis or Dana Eveland.
We'll find out soon enough.
Jurrjens is just happy for the opportunity to compete for a spot on a contending team.
"Seeing this team get to the playoffs last year, especially after a good run, it's like, why not?,'' he said. "To be around young guys who are hungry ... I'm young and I'm hungry, too. Just trying to prove something again."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.
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