After a very long road back that included Tommy John surgery and later dealing with complications from that procedure, right-hander Branden Kline moved a step closer to his big league dream.
He was added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster for the first time yesterday. He’ll go to spring training with a chance to win a roster spot out of the bullpen. If he doesn’t head north for opening day, no doubt his chance should come at some point next season.
Between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie last year, Kline went 5-4 with a 1.64 ERA in 44 games. In 32 games for the Baysox, he went 4-4 with a 1.80 ERA and 15 saves in 16 chances. Showing a fastball that touched the high 90s, he pitched 45 innings, allowing 32 hits with 15 walks, 48 strikeouts and a .199 average against.
To use a Buck Showalter phrase, Kline’s move to the 40-man roster was delayed, but not denied. He was a starting pitcher on his way up through the farm system with Bowie in 2015, when he felt elbow pain during a May start. It ended his year and he had the elbow ligament replacement surgery in October 2015. That forced him to miss all of the next season. He and the Orioles expected his full return for 2017, but he never pitched an inning. There were complications and he underwent follow-up procedures in March and September.
So when he took the mound in April of this year, it had been almost three full years since he last pitched in a game. His last strikeout before he was sidelined came on May 20, 2015 for Bowie against Trenton when he fanned Aaron Judge.
Now this hometown kid from Frederick, Md., is one step closer to joining the Orioles roster. Not denied at all.
“Completely excited and extremely humbled,” Kline said during a phone interview Tuesday. “Definitely looking forward to the opportunity. I really thank my friends and family, and especially the Orioles organization for sticking with me as long as they have.
“It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but this isn’t the end. Growing up, I never dreamed of just being on the 40-man roster, but being in the big leagues, and this is a small step toward getting there.”
When the 2018 season began, Kline wasn’t setting any numbers goals or too worried about radar guns.
“At the beginning of the season, my big goal was just to make it through healthy” he said. “For me, anything numbers-wise was icing on the cake. But after the year, being able to sit back and think about the season, I was blown away. I couldn’t have done this without the many coaches, trainers and teammates that put me in a position to succeed. I learned continually through the year and was fortunate to play a full season once again.”
Kline was happily surprised that he was throwing as hard as he was, and that his stuff was slowly coming back. And while his blazing fastball is big for him, he said the huge gains his changeup made this year made a real difference. It helped him hold lefty batters to a .129 batting average with a .394 OPS.
“Before the year, when I was throwing bullpens, I thought, ‘It’s coming out (of my hand) pretty well.’ But, yeah, that was probably because we’re in February and March and I wasn’t seeing batters yet,” he said. “But in spring training, I was kind of like, ‘I’m, like, back.’ And then I saw the radar gun and how the stuff was playing.
“Through the course of the year, my changeup just kept improving and getting better and better. I give a lot of the credit to Kennie Steenstra (Bowie pitching coach) in Double-A. Also to Blaine Beatty for his help in high-A. But the grip I was taught (on the changeup) while I was rehabbing was from Wilson Álvarez (Gulf Coast League pitching coach) in Sarasota.
“The more I threw it, it went beyond all expectations I had,” Kline said. “I think that was the biggest thing throughout the season. I had my fastball back, but also a changeup with the same spin as my fastball, but it was, at certain times, 10 miles per hour slower. I can’t count how many times I got out of big jams using that pitch.”
Álvarez showed Kline the changeup grip during 2016, but Kline didn’t get back into a game and didn’t have a chance to show it off until last season.
“It was huge for me,” said Kline, who turned 27 last month. “It actually gave me time for my slider to come around. At the beginning of the year it wasn’t quite there, and as the season went on, that came back to where it was in 2015. So I had a three-pitch arsenal like I had in 2015, and it’s an advantage to have that if you only see the lineup once. Just continued to improve and learn throughout the year.”
Kline is a local kid who made good. The Frederick native is a 2009 grad of Thomas Johnson High School. Drafted by the Boston Red Sox in round six that year, he instead went to the University of Virginia. The Orioles selected him in round two in 2012.
He showed early promise and Baseball America rated him the club’s No. 9 prospect at the end of 2012. He soon started advancing toward the majors and was getting closer that day when he fanned Judge in Trenton. But surgery and setbacks got in the way, putting his career in question.
Kline sure put in the time and work to get back, and the O’s medical staff did its part. After throwing 39 innings in 2015 and none in 2016 and 2017, he pitched 65 2/3 innings this year and was considered for a September call-up. But the Orioles held off, all along realizing they would need to add Kline to the roster to keep him out of the Rule 5 draft in December.
They did that yesterday. Now at a time when big league bullpens are staffing up with those throwing mid- and upper-90s fastballs, the Orioles can add another one to their mix.