With the start of spring training now just days away and with possibly just one rotation spot available to several Orioles pitchers, what will the camp competition mean to some young pitchers in particular, guys like Brian Matusz, Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta?
That threesome - and Chris Tillman - were the basis for optimism in recent years when looking at the future of the rotation. Surely two, maybe three, and if the club was lucky, all four would live up to their high expectations and the Orioles could then bank on a young rotation to build around for years to come.
I feel pretty sure that is exactly what Andy MacPhail thought as the 2011 season was about to begin - that the foursome would begin to lead the organization back to respectability. But it all fell apart as the Orioles went 67-95 and the group of four combined to go 25-33 with an ERA of 5.68 in 75 combined starts. Britton had the lowest ERA of the group at 4.61. So much for the promise of a solid future.
Of course, a year later, the Orioles would win 93 games and Tillman was a big key. But of the four, he was the only member of the group even in the rotation as the year came to an end.
It makes me wonder about the futures of Matusz, Britton and Arrieta in the rotation. Matusz perhaps could emerge as a strong lefty out of the ‘pen again, but are the Orioles going to only get a 25 or 50 percent return on this group that previously looked so good?
All were once top-100 prospects. Arrieta was ranked 67th by Baseball America in February 2009 and 99th a year later. Britton was rated 63rd in 2010 and 28th a year later. Matusz was ranked 25th in 2009 and fifth in 2010 while Tillman was 67th in 2008 and 22nd in 2009.
Arrieta is maybe the most interesting case; a pitcher that scouts insist has big talent, but last year had a big ERA as well. In fact, his ERA has been on the rise over his three years with the Orioles, from 4.66 in 2010 to 5.05 in 2011 and 6.20 in 2012.
Ironically, Arrieta had some of his best peripheral stats last season, posting career bests in WHIP (1.37), walks per nine innings (2.7) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.6). Tampa’s Matt Moore had a 1.35 WHIP last year, walked 4.1 batters per nine innings, yet was 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA.
So why did Arrieta post such a high ERA? One reason was his struggles against left-handed batters, who hit .291 with an OPS of .846 against him.
So what does the future hold for Arrieta, Britton and Matusz? Will they be super motivated for this season and the spring training competition after Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez passed them by last year?
The Orioles clearly are still believers in the trio. Buck Showalter has often said of the young pitchers, “Just because success is delayed doesn’t mean it’s denied.”
Their days on those top-100 lists are long over and they turn that over now to the next wave of young talent and pitchers like Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Eduardo Rodriguez.
But I just have a feeling that anyone writing off any of those pitchers at this point may have to eat their words. The talent is there. We’ve seen flashes of it from all of them. Injuries and inconsistency have pushed them down the depth chart a bit.
Can they battle their way back?