It’s a little early to be focusing on the Orioles’ offseason decisions, considering that they’ve still got four days to acquire a hitter for their playoff roster and an important road trip that begins tonight in Boston. But I’m more than a little curious about their plans for left-hander Brian Matusz.
The Orioles selected Matusz with the fourth pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft because they envisioned him as a top-of-the-rotation starter, not a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. Now he’s making $1.6 million after avoiding arbitration over the winter in his first year of eligibility.
Matusz attained Super 2 status, so he’s arbitration-eligible three more times before he can become a free agent in 2017. He’s got another raise coming this winter.
Do the Orioles keep him in a role that’s allowed him to thrive? Do they give him another shot as a starter, which is his preference? Do they explore a trade rather than watch his salary escalate if they don’t believe there’s a place for him in the rotation?
I presented those possibilities to Matusz during the last homestand. Bullpen, rotation or gone. To his credit, he’s not worrying about this winter or what may happen in spring training. Not with a little more than a month’s worth of games left in the regular season.
“Right now, most importantly, I’m focused on finishing out the season, being with these guys and doing everything I can to help with this playoff push,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s the goal right now, to make the playoffs and make a run in the postseason. That’s the focus right now. But ultimately, I would love to be a starter once again at some point in my career.
“I think once the season ends, at some time we’ll sit down and I’m sure we’ll talk to Buck (Showalter) about that and see what their plans are, and we’ll go from there. But right now, the focus has to be on pitching well out of the bullpen and making a run at the playoffs.”
Pitching well out of the bullpen is what’s keeping Matusz from getting another shot at starting. He’s stranded 29 of 32 inherited runners this season and 43 of 46 since becoming a reliever in August 2012. This season, he’s 2-1 with a 3.30 ERA in 53 games, with 36 hits, 14 walks, 38 strikeouts and only three home runs allowed in 43 2/3 innings.
Matusz was 21-33 with a 5.51 ERA in 68 major league starts, and opponents batted .290 against him. As a reliever, he’s 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 71 games, and opponents are batting .202.
Left-handers are batting .209 against Matusz in his career, but right-handers are batting .305. These splits pushed the Orioles to convert him into a reliever last summer at Triple-A Norfolk.
“No doubt, it’s been a different role for sure, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having fun,” he said. “The guys down there in the bullpen, we have a good time day in and day out. To have the opportunity to pitch every day is a lot of fun.
“With the success that the team’s been having, the ride’s been good, so no complaints there. But ultimately for my career, for what I’ve done in the past, I’d like to be able to start again at some point. But to be talking about that right now is tough to do, because its not realistic for this year and we’re on a run.
“I want to win a ring this year. We had that taste of the postseason last year. Just like last year, whatever I can do to help this team win, that’s really all that matters right now.”
The Orioles stretched out Matusz last spring in case they needed him in the rotation, gradually building his innings in exhibition games, and they could do the same next year if he’s still on the team.
“If that’s what’s discussed with Buck going into it, I don’t see it being anything different from last year going into spring training preparing to start,” he said. “It would be the same thing.”
Showalter said Matusz “still possibly has a future as a starter.” He also pointed out that Matusz and Zach Britton are out of options next spring.
The Orioles can’t send down Matusz and let him start at Norfolk - which they might otherwise be willing to do - unless he clears waivers. No way that happens.
“That’s way down the road,” Showalter said. “I’m not dwelling on that. That’s something for down the road. I’d hope their career path takes the same one as the last starter we had in spring this year who was out of options, (Chris) Tillman. We’ll see.
“I know what (Matusz) wants to do. I know what Tommy Hunter wants to do. I’ve had very few guys who have told me (they want to be relievers) with the exception of (Mike) Belfiore. We tried to talk to him about being a starter and he wants no part of it. That was weird. Most of them want to be a starter. But why do they want to be a starter?”
“Really?” Showalter replied.
Yeah, I caught the sarcasm.