It's been a long, long journey for Jim Hoey.
A marginal prospect during his days at Rider University, Hoey was a 13th round pick for the Orioles in 2003. He had moments of success in his first few professional seasons, but multiple arm injuries kept him from showing the Orioles much of anything.
"It's tough watching everyone play, especially when I was injured", Hoey told Inside The Warehouse. "I would sit in the bullpen and just watch everyone play. My mentality, just like everyone here, is I want to get out there and play. No one ever wants to get hurt."
After finally recovering from Tommy John surgery, Hoey was assigned to the low-A Delmarva Shorebirds to start 2006. Once there, everything seemed to click. Perhaps it had something to do with his newfound arm strength.
"I think I did [gain a couple of ticks on my fastball]. Before the injury, I would touch like 95, 96 MPH. I think now I am more consistently at 94-97 MPH and occasionally 98 or 99 MPH. It could have just been me maturing, but I don't know."
Hoey struck out 46 batters in just over 28 innings en route to a sparkling 2.54 ERA. Promoted to high-A Frederick, he needed only 14 innings to show that he was ready for a new challenge. Even a promotion to double-A Bowie didn't slow him down. The Orioles decided to give the 24 year old right-hander a look in the majors. Since they couldn't even wait for the rosters to expand in September, the Orioles even demoted the talented Chris Britton to make room for him.
Although it was a fairy tale season for Hoey, the ending didn't go exactly as planned. He gave up 11 earned runs in 9.2 innings. Even that didn't dull the organization's enthusiasm for the young flamethrower, since his struggles could not be solely blamed on the level of his competition.
"[My arm] was tired. I hadn't thrown a full season in so long. Put it this way, I'd thrown fifteen innings in two years and then threw fifty-something innings the next year, so I was feeling it a little bit. Last year was the first time I was actually on a full-season squad."
The experience of being in the majors, however, has played a major role in Hoey's maturation as a pitcher.
"I like the fact that I know what batter's are doing up there now and I know how to pitch to them. When I was first coming up in Delmarva, all I did was throw fastballs and sliders. I would throw a fastball if I was behind in the count and a slider if I was ahead in the count and they would chase it. I found out that what you really need to do is locate. I brought that [from the major leagues] back to here and I worked on it during the off-season in my location drills and it really seems to be working."
Even his off-season regimen is now geared towards preparing him for a 162-game season.
"You have to be conscious of your body. It's a long season and people don't realize that you don't get weekends off. It's a long seasons and there is a lot of maintenance you have to do. There is a lot of maintenance that I didn't even realize that I had to do. I'm keeping logs and little calendars of what I've done. I'm trying to keep myself on top of my arm."
If his current performance is any indication, Hoey might not need much more refinement before he gets another crack at the big league bullpen. He has struck out 24 batters in his first 15.2 innings without surrendering a single run.
"I throw a fastball, a slider and an occasional changeup. I haven't really thrown [the changeup] as much here, but I used it a lot in the big leagues. Surprisingly, I just haven't needed it yet."
Of course, Hoey isn't letting all of this go to his head. He realizes that there are still improvements to be made.
"One of my goals is to throw two innings. I'd love to get a two-inning save or maybe come in during the eighth [inning] and build my stamina. I used to be a starter, got hurt, and now I'm a reliever, so I'd love to do a two-inning stint at some point."
Hoey is also a dedicated student of the game and absorbs as much of the knowledge that Bowie Baysox Pitching Coach Scotty McGregor is willing to impart.
"I'm working on my location and keeping my arm angle. During a long season, your mechanics change a little bit. You start to fatigue and drop down [your arm slot] and certain things happen. I'm staying on top of it and working on my mechanics every day with Scotty."
Injuries have kept the Orioles from seeing as much of Hoey as they would have liked in the past, but everybody is happy with what they're seeing now. In fact, his past injury problems have played a major role in the development of the work ethic that might just allow him to fulfill his vast potential.
Despite the high-priced bullpen acquisitions of the past off-season, Hoey should force himself into the big league picture by the end of the season. In time, he could even compete with Chris Ray for the closer's role.
At the very least, no one is calling him a marginal prospect anymore.
Michael Hollman is the Senior Writer for Inside The Warehouse and can be reached via email at Publisher@InsideTheWarehouse.com