Notes: Birkins looks for success in '07
Lefty reliever went 5-2 with a 4.94 ERA in 35 games in 2006
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The trajectory seems odd from the outside and even stranger from within. Lefty reliever Kurt Birkins admits that his rookie season provided some unlikely moments, and none less likely than his promotion to the big leagues after spending Spring Training at Baltimore's Minor League complex in Sarasota, Fla.
The Orioles spent the 2006 exhibition season combing over several potential relievers -- all of them more experienced than Birkins -- and wound up promoting him just four weeks later. One year later, it's still a surprise.
"Even now, it still seems a little surreal," he said about last season. "I hadn't been in Major League camp, and after a month of Triple-A, I got that call. And then not only getting up there, but being successful, too -- it gave me the confidence that I actually have the stuff to be up there, to compete and to help the team win.
"I'm just looking forward to getting that chance again."
Birkins, a starter for most of his professional career, wound up serving as the team's situational southpaw. He pitched to an 0.86 ERA in his first 17 games and a 13.50 mark in his next 18 before shutting down with a case of neuritis in his left elbow. Now, Birkins finds himself trying to convince the Orioles that he can repeat his success.
He may or may not get that chance, because Baltimore spent the winter building up its bullpen. Jamie Walker signed a three-year deal to be the team's primary left-handed reliever, leaving Birkins without a defined role. If he makes the team, he'll likely do it as a long man and situational southpaw for use in the early innings.
"Coming in, with the numbers this bullpen put up last year, you knew the front office was going to make some changes and bring in some new guys," he said. "But they called me this offseason and let me know that even though they brought in a lot of new guys, there are still a couple of spots open and they expect me to battle for it."
The 26-year-old is fully recovered from his bout with neuritis, which may have been brought on by the subtle differences between starting and relieving. Birkins hadn't been a full-time reliever since 2004 and wasn't used to getting up and sitting down several times a week. Now, at the very least, he knows how to take care of his arm.
Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo has said that he may not carry a second lefty reliever, which could mean that Birkins would start the season right back in Triple-A at new affiliate Norfolk. But Perlozzo also said that if Birkins demonstrates that he's one of the team's best options, he'll likely be warming up at Camden Yards at some point.
"What you try to do is carry your best seven guys," Perlozzo said. "If your best seven guys can get a lefty out, then that's the way you want to go. It's a luxury when you have that [second southpaw]. ... But we'll take the best arms we have, regardless of whether they are right-handed or left-handed."
Armed and ready: Kris Benson began his rehabilitation program on Thursday and is expected to continue on that path for the next four weeks. Benson has a partially torn rotator cuff and is trying to avoid surgery by strengthening the muscles around it. The right-hander won't pick up a baseball until the end of the rehabilitation.
"I'll be evaluating myself every day," said Benson, who arrived at Fort Lauderdale Stadium on Wednesday. "I just want to make sure that every day I come to the park, I feel a little bit better. Hopefully, by week two, week three or week four, it will totally go away and we can start with the throwing program."
Benson spent most of the morning doing light dumbbell exercises and will gradually increase the weights over the next few weeks. He'll also need to ice his arm and undergo electronic stimulation several times a week. The veteran said the process is similar to the rehab work he does during the season to keep his arm fresh.
The strength work kept Benson in the clubhouse and away from his teammates, but he said he didn't mind.
"It's not too bad right now, because they're not out there playing games," he said. "I've only been here a day, but it's not too bad, because Spring Training is a little more freedom. Once games start, it's a little bit different. Even then, the pitchers will all be floating around and chit-chatting."
Meanwhile, Perlozzo said he'll keep tabs on Benson's rehab and give weekly updates. For now, though, he's operating under the assumption that Benson won't be able to pitch anytime soon.
"I think what you do is you have to plan life without him and then make it a bonus when you get him," Perlozzo said. "You're not going to make the mistake of thinking you have somebody and then scrambling at the end. We just want him to get better. We have a little time, though."
Catch up: Perlozzo referenced the battle for the backup catcher's slot and said it isn't a done deal just yet. Veteran Paul Bako -- who signed a Major League contract worth $900,000 -- and Minor League catcher J.R. House are the top candidates. Adam Donachie, a Rule 5 Draft selection, also has an outside shot.
Bako has the edge by virtue of his experience and defensive skill behind the plate. The 34-year-old has played for eight different big-league teams and has 14 home runs in 586 big-league games. House is capable of playing first base and may even see some time in the outfield during Spring Training, but has just 19 big-league at-bats.
"J.R. plays a couple of different positions. We'll take a look at him and see what he can help us with," Perlozzo said. "If somebody is going to steal it away from Bako, he's going to have to swing the bat and catch pretty well. Paul's been around a pretty long time. But we'll give them all a shot and see what they got."
Quotable: "As long as I'm up there and getting outs, I don't care. As long as they're call my name and I'm getting out there, it doesn't matter." -- Birkins, on whether he'll a starter or a reliever in the long run
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.