The Washington Times - February 2, 2009, 01:15PM

The Orioles’ acquisition on Monday of former Cubs lefty Rich Hill is a terrific low-risk, high-upside gamble. Worst-case scenario, he can’t find the plate - the reason the World Series-contending Cubs chose to part ways with him - and the move costs Baltimore a “player to be named later,” probably a low-level prospect. On the flip side, if he can return to his 2007 form, the O’s will have gotten a potential No. 2 starter at a bargain basement rate.

Hill - a University of Michigan product who will turn 29 on March 11 - was nothing short of atrocious in 2008. The Cubs had high hopes for him at the beginning of the year, but he was banished to the minors after just five starts, never to return to the Windy City. He managed just 19 2/3 innings in his five big league starts, walking an obscene 19 batters en route to a 1.58 WHIP. The final straw was his May 2 start against the Cardinals in which he walked four batters in just two-thirds of an inning.

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The Cubs sent Hill to the minors hoping he’d regain his command, but it didn’t happen. Splitting time between three levels, he issued 44 free passes in 47 2/3 innings and finished with a 4-7 record and 5.85 ERA. To Hill’s credit, he headed down to Venezuela this winter to make another effort to get things straightened out. He returned to the states disappointed, however, after walking 23 batters in 21 innings for the Tigres de Aragua. At that point, the title-hungry Cubs had run out of patience. The Mariners also expressed interest in Hill before he was shipped to Baltimore.

So why, you may ask, am I applauding the Orioles for acquiring this wild man? First of all, the price is right. Second, he’s only one horrible season removed from being one of the better left-handed starters in baseball. Hill went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA for the 2007 Cubs and finished the year with a sparkling 1.19 WHIP. He fanned 183 batters and walked just 63, ranking fifth in the National League in strikeouts and - more importantly, given what has transpired since - ninth in K-to-walk ratio. Hill’s 2007 success didn’t come completely out of the blue, either, as he went 3-1 with a 1.84 ERA in his last seven starts of 2006 after spending most of the year dominating triple-A hitters (7-1, 1.80 ERA, 135 strikeouts, 21 walks in 100 innings at Iowa).

It’s entirely possible that Hill will never regain his 2007 form, but there’s also a decent chance that all he needed was a change of scenery. Maybe Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz - who was Hill’s pitching coach in 2005, when he went 11-4 with a 3.31 ERA for the triple-A Iowa Cubs - will be able to detect some flaw in his delivery that’s negatively affecting his command, or just help him get back to basics. Either way, it’s a risk worth taking for the Orioles, whose rotation currently consists of Jeremy Guthrie, Japanese import Koji Uehara and - since prospects Chris Tillman, David Hernandez and Brad Bergesen aren’t quite ready yet - not much else. Baltimore’s hitters should put up a good number of runs this season, and if the pitching staff can step up, the Birds could be a .500 team, if not yet contenders in the ultra-competitive A.L. East.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at [email protected]