Before this season, Orioles right-handed pitching prospect Branden Kline had not pitched in a minor league game since early in the 2015 season. Now, after missing nearly three full years, he is back, pitching well, throwing with top velocity and moving closer to realizing his dream of pitching in the majors.
The 26-year-old native of Frederick, Md., and a 2009 graduate of Thomas Johnson High School, Kline had Tommy John surgery in October 2015. He expected to return close to full health for the 2017 season, but had two setbacks that year leading to two more procedures that delayed his comeback.
But this season, his feel-good story is being realized. He’s thriving for Double-A Bowie with a fastball touching the upper 90s and could potentially find himself in Baltimore later this season.
Before the 2018 season, Kline’s last outing was May 20, 2015 for Bowie at Trenton. He pitched just 1 2/3 innings and had one strikeout, getting Aaron Judge in the first inning. Until that day, when he felt pain in his right elbow, Kline’s career was trending upward. Then he hit a nearly three-year bump in the road.
But he finally made it back to Bowie this season and is 3-2 with a 1.71 ERA and eight saves in eight chances. Over 31 2/3 innings, he has allowed 23 hits and just two homers with eight walks to 33 strikeouts.
“His arm looks real healthy and he’s been throwing mid to upper 90s with a good breaking ball and a solid changeup that he’s using against lefties,” said Bowie manager Gary Kendall. “Everything has been real positive for him. Plus he’s a smart kid and a wonderful person to be around. A real bright spot for us.”
Kline, who throws a fastball, slider and change, said the Eastern League was a real challenge his first time here and is again this season.
“There are a lot of good hitters in this league that make you throw strikes and definitely make you throw strikes with your off-speed,” Kline said. “So I think it was a great plan to start in high-A and get my feet wet and a feel for everything. And then got here and started working with Kennie (Steenstra, pitching coach) and our catchers. Making some adjustments and just trying to get better.”
The Orioles started him off slowly this season and they sent him to Single-A Frederick to play in hometown. He posted a 1.31 ERA with three walks and 23 strikeouts over 20 2/3 innings. In mid-May, he was on his way back to Double-A.
Kline said all his pitches have been pretty solid.
“For the most part, all of them have been good,” he said. “Throughout the season, there are definitely times when one pitch is better than the others. But at least every outing, I’ve had my fastball command going pretty well and had at least one of the slider or changeup. Depending on the situation or what hitter is up, depends on what I’ll use, but everything has been feeling pretty good.”
Orioles fans may be inclined to like this guy if for no other reason then he turned down the Red Sox coming out of high school when they selected him in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. It was three years later when the Orioles selected him in the second round out of the University of Virginia. Kline was a starter on the O’s farm his first time moving up the minor league ladder. He made 26 starts in the 2014 season, 23 at Frederick.
But his days as a starter could be over and he is now enjoying life in the bullpen.
“I think it’s enjoyable in that you get to influence more games,” Kline said. “As a reliever, you could go back-to-back days. You could pitch three days in a five-game span. It keeps you on your toes in the bullpen, trying to help the team win in any situation.”
“Not at all,” he said. “As soon as you start thinking about what could happen, you start losing it out on the mound. (If) my focus - or if anyone’s focus - is elsewhere, there are problems that can arise from that. So right now, I’m just focused on trying to get better down here. If I have that opportunity of pitching in Baltimore one day, that would be great. But right now, I just want to get better at my craft. If we were ready, we would be in the big leagues. If we’re down here, we are working on something. I have things I need to improve to get better.”
“One of the biggest things I need to work is consistency with off-speed pitches,” Kline said. “Not only throwing them for strikes, but also the shape of the breaking ball and the speed of the changeup. Being able to throw them in fastball counts, where I am behind in the count, is something that is really going to be pivotal for me going forward.”
If Kline does make it to Baltimore this year, or even if he doesn’t, his story is one worth tracking and appreciating. A prospect on the rise misses nearly three years and comes back strong. He was ranked by Baseball America as high as the Orioles’ No. 9 prospect at the end of the 2012 season.
This is a pitcher that has garnered respect throughout the O’s organization. His manager in Bowie is a big fan.
“You talk about development versus winning, there are games we have to not use him that I wish we could. But for the health of that kid, I’ll take a loss if he can get to the big leagues,” Kendall said.
He added that he feels Kline could pitch in the bigs this year.
“I don’t see why not,” Kendall said. “He throws three pitches over the plate, he’s got good depth to his breaking ball and he’s got a good arm and can locate. He commands the ball and is intelligent. He reads swings. He’s a guy that has enough confidence that if he doesn’t feel the pitch is right that was called, he’ll go with his pitch. He pitches with conviction.”
Kline knows his comeback won’t be truly complete until he gets to majors and has success there. But with strong support from his wife, Sarah, and a lot of help from the club’s medical staff the last few years, he’s trending up. Yet again.
“When the Orioles drafted me in 2012, I thought being a hometown kid, I may get a little notice,” Kline said. “But I try to stay humble. There are a lot of people that helped me get to this point. But I’ve put in a lot of hard work and want to give a lot of credit to those that helped me in the long run.”