FORT LAUDERDALE -- Sure, Rich Hill isn't quite a household name, but fans really have to catch on. A spring training autograph seeker Thursday called him Matt, presumably mistaking him for Orioles catching phenom Matt Wieters. Apparently, that is the treatment you get when you are new in town and trying to get back out of Fantasy obscurity. To the mistaken fan, Hill politely said, "I'm not Matt," signing the autograph without explaining who he actually is.
The signature could speak for him, but he might prefer let his pitching do it for him.
Step 1 is proving himself, err his health.
While Wieters, the talk of camp early on, has yet to officially appear in the major leagues, Hill was once one of baseball's up-and-coming left-handers in 2007, when he went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 195 innings (32 starts). Last season, his "future ace" status came crashing when he was limited to just five starts (1-0, 4.22, 1.61 and an awful 15-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 2/3 innings).
|Rich Hill was once a promising prospect with the Cubs, but now must rebuild himself with the O's. (Getty Images)|
"I would feel good enough to go out there every fifth day, but come the third or fourth inning it would just blow up on me," Hill said, referring to his back troubles that made him feel like an old, old man -- much older than the 28-, soon to be 29-, year-old he is.
The signs started last spring when he says his back was crooked like a question mark -- "almost Scoliosis-like," he said. It was so bad, he couldn't even enjoy playing golf, a spring training staple.
Forget about pitching Fantasy teams to championships, Hill couldn't even get back up after bending over to tie his cleats. It sure makes it tough to bend and fire strikes.
Hill is another fine example of an injury-risk sleeper in Fantasy this spring. He will be widely overlooked and forgotten in all but the deepest of leagues. But, if his back will let him, he could carry the back-end of your Fantasy rotation as a L.I.M.A. option (low-investment mound ace).
We will watch him closely this spring to see if his back gets over that third/fourth-inning hump. Before doing so, we cautiously project (6-9), 4.66 ERA, 133 strikeouts and a 1.462 WHIP in 145 innings (25 starts). Numbers that make him barely draftable in AL-only formats.
We suppose that is not bad thing for a left-hander who was really born a right-hander. After signing that autograph with his right hand, he told us a story about how he was right-handed until he was five or six years old, when his brothers would force him to throw with the opposite hand. He has been an erratic, slightly out-of-command left-hander ever since, and he has his brothers to thank.
If he can stave of back issues, find command and throw strikes, he is easily more talented than those numbers we project for him. We say that even when he is pitching in the AL Beast and on a lowly non-contender like the Orioles, who won't make any of their starters better than a .500 pitcher.
Hill enters spring the potential No. 3 starter behind Jeremy Guthrie and Japanese import Koji Uehara, but well ahead of the pile of arms competing for spots No. 4 and 5: Chris Waters, Mark Hendrickson, Brad Hennessey, Danys Baez, Troy Patton, Hayden Penn, Radhames Liz, David Pauley and Matt Albers. Orioles farm prospects Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Brandon Erbe, Chorye Spoone, Zach Britton, Bradley Bergesen, David Hernandez, Jason Berken, Pedro Beato and Tony Butler are not opening day rotation candidates at this point.
Hill once had more potential than anyone in their system, so he could very well prove to be the Orioles best pitcher this season.
Maybe by the time Wieters actually gets called up to the major leagues this season, someone will be inclined to mistakenly ask Matt for Rich's autograph. If Hill pitches the way he is capable, you won't find many who don't know the name, especially thankful Fantasy owners.
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