Before the 2013 season officially came to a close for the Orioles, manager Buck Showalter already had discussed 2014 with two of his relievers.
Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter want to be starters again despite their successes in the bullpen. They stopped by Showalter’s office - his door is always open to his players and occasionally to the media - to gauge whether they would be given a chance to crack the rotation next season.
Both pitchers are out of minor league options. Otherwise, the Orioles may have sent Matusz to Triple-A Norfork to get stretched out after another season as a lefty specialist.
Showalter intends to work them as starters in spring training, knowing that it’s easier to shift from rotation to bullpen than the other way around. Matusz was on the same schedule last spring. Hunter was supposed to be, but he never really seemed in contention for a starter’s job.
It would be easier for Matusz and Hunter to escape the ‘pen if they weren’t so valuable in it. They’re basically working against themselves.
Matusz held left-handers to a .168 average this season. He stranded 32 of 37 inherited runners, improving his ratio to 46 of 51 in his career. He stranded the first 26 after becoming a reliever last summer.
Matusz earned $1.6 million this season in his first year of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two, and he’s worth every penny just for the way he handles David Ortiz, who’s 1-for-20 with 12 strikeouts against him. The Indians’ Nick Swisher is 1-for-21. The Angels’ Josh Hamilton is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. The Yankees’ Brett Gardner is 1-for-12 with four strikeouts.
Right-handers batted .302 against Matusz this season, and they’ve posted a .305 average in his career. The splits are a concern to the Orioles, who also want Matusz to improve defensively.
Matusz eliminated a past concern. He’s become much better at holding runners.
One member of the organization estimated that Matusz could make $3 million next season. I’ve already written that he could be a trade candidate. The Orioles have a few decisions to make here.
Hunter held right-handers to a .141 average this season, but left-handers hit .294 - matching their lifetime average against him. He gave up 161 hits and 32 homers in 133 2/3 innings last season, and 71 hits and 11 homers in 86 1/3 innings this year.
Hunter morphed into quite a late-inning weapon for Showalter, unleashing an upper-90s fastball. His velocity dips as a starter. The Orioles like him in shorter spurts, but they understand his preference to rejoin the rotation.
So what should the Orioles do with Matusz and Hunter?