The Washington Nationals' No. 1 prospect wasn't supposed to make any starts for the Class A Potomac Nationals this year. Team officials expected Mike Hinckley, a left-handed pitcher from Oklahoma City, to throw for the Harrisburg Senators in Class AA, or better yet, hurl for the big league club at RFK Stadium.
But after an injury and inconsistency on the mound, Hinckley, 22, still lingers with the Woodbridge-based Carolina League team.
That fact still hasn't hurt his reputation, Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said.
"We get calls on Mike all the time. He's a prospect that is wanted by many clubs," Bowden said. "No, we're not looking to trade Mike. We're looking forward to him being a starting left-hand pitcher in our rotation, whether it be this year or next."
A third-round pick out of high school in 2001, Hinckley rose steadily through the ranks of the Expos organization, winning its minor league pitcher of the year awards in 2003 and 2004. After making 16 starts for Harrisburg at the end of last season -- going 5-2 with a 2.87 ERA and 80 strikeouts -- he was named the organization's top prospect by Baseball America in the offseason.
Hinckley came into spring training with a 90-plus-mph fastball, an effective curveball and an improving change-up.
"He's become more physically and mentally mature each year," said Adam Wogan, the Nationals' director of player development. "He progressed up the ladder to the point where he was knocking on the door last year."
The Nationals let Hinckley in that door at the beginning of 2005, allowing him to participate in big league camp in Viera, Fla. Things didn't go as planned.
In three appearances, Hinckley allowed eight runs in six innings. He was optioned to Harrisburg on March 14.
"He didn't have the spring he wished he'd had," Bowden said. "We saw parts of his brilliance but didn't really see the real Mike Hinckley."
Less than two weeks later, the club found Hinckley had strained a muscle in his throwing shoulder.
"My entire body was very, very tight" during spring training, he said. "I was throwing all arm."
Hinckley was sent to extended spring training to rehab his shoulder and then joined Potomac on May 9. In 2003 and 2004 at Class A, he went a combined 10-2 in 14 starts, with a 0.72 ERA in 2003 and a 2.61 ERA in 2004. But this time he struggled to control the movement and location of his pitches, going 1-3 with a 5.28 ERA in his first nine starts. Batters averaged .317 against him, and he was 0-3 with a 6.86 ERA in May.
Hinckley says his faith helped him through the struggles. He adds "Jeremiah 29:11" to his autographs, referring to a Bible passage that tells believers to take comfort because God has directed a path of peace for their lives.
"Any time you're thrown with any type of adversity, you either get stronger or waver a little bit. I wavered a little bit in the fact that I was frustrated," Hinckley said. "I knew I had to persevere and continue to keep going and try to stay rooted as best I could in [the Bible]. . . . No matter what happens, just like things happened with Job, you have to continue to steer the course."
Hinckley's June 26 start -- eight shutout innings, two hits and six strikeouts in an 8-2 win over visiting Frederick -- has helped him bring his ERA down to 4.71. He walked five batters, three in the fourth inning, which was uncharacteristic for a pitcher who issued one walk per four innings in 2004. But the outing was encouraging.
"His breaking ball's sharper, his fastball's got some more electricity to it," Potomac Manager Bobby Henley said after the game. "I'll tell you what right there, that's a good start. I think that's a good building block right there."
For the season, Hinckley is 2-3 with 39 strikeouts and 27 walks in 571/3 innings.
"He's slowly getting back into form. It takes a while," Bowden said. "The encouraging thing is that he's healthy. We expect big things from him in the second half of the season."
Henley and Wogan are expecting similar results, but stress the importance of Hinckley improving the command and location of his pitches, especially his changeup. Hinckley says he has his eyes on improving and making an impact at the major league level.
"I got a taste," Hinckley said of his spring stint with the major league team. "I know what it tastes like to be in a big league locker room, and that's where I belong. I just have to continue to work hard. I think this year I will be able to help them. . . . When I step on that mound I know I'm a major league starter."