Forty years ago, the Baltimore Orioles had arguably the greatest pitching rotation of all time. Back then, four pitchers won over 20 games for the O's. In 2011, just two won over 10 games. My, how things have changed.
Last season, the Orioles had the worst rotation in baseball, posting a 5.39 ERA that was a full 1.3 runs above the league average. Their 60 quality starts were 11 behind the second-to-last Colorado Rockies, and not surprisingly, their 5.4 innings per start ranked last by a wide margin. Only three starters won over four games, and 24-year-old Brian Matusz, the presumed ace entering the season, finished 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA.
Just a little over two years ago, Baseball America praised the Orioles for their “volume of arms with legitimate promise”. Now, no one is sure what to think.
With ten candidates fighting for five rotation spots, quite a bit remains unanswered heading into spring:
-Will any of new GM Dan Duquette’s offseason acquisitions (Dana Eveland, Wei-Yin Chen & Tsuyoshi Wada) even make the staff?
-Can Tommy Hunter return to the numbers he posted in Texas?
-Will the former top prospects (Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman) show any sort of consistency?
For now, here’s a look at what to expect from the Orioles staff come Opening Day 2012:
Heading into camp, the right-handed Guthrie is fully expected to be the team’s ace and Opening Day starter against the Minnesota Twins. While he profiles as a back-of-the-rotation arm, he has been one of the O’s most consistent starters since joining the team in 2007, and is the only starter to top 200 innings in any of the past three seasons (in fact, he’s done it all three years).
Guthrie is a strike-throwing innings eater that has posted terrific numbers in baseball’s toughest division. He utilizes a four-pitch arsenal (fastball, slider, changeup, curveball) that, while it is without a plus-pitch, is both effective and reliable.
Under contract for just one more season, Guthrie is a prime trade chip that could wind up with another organization before July’s trade deadline.
In terms of pure stuff and upside, second year lefty Zach Britton is without question the Orioles’ top pitcher, and could take over as rotation ace before season’s end.
Last season, Britton was outstanding through his first nine starts, posting a 6-3 record and 2.14 ERA, and handling the AL East’s top teams with ease. However, shortly thereafter, Britton fell into a funk that he never was able to escape, posting a 5.76 ERA and 1.64 WHIP over his final ten starts, following a brief stint down at Double-A Bowie. After battling through his struggles last season, I fully expect Britton to bounce back in 2012, and further demonstrate his front-of-the-rotation upside.
The 24-year-old Britton has drawn comparisons to former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb for his exceptional sinker, rated best in the minors in 2010 by Baseball America. While at times he struggled finding the zone in 2011, he still drew a 52.8 ground ball percentage, well above the big league average, a tendency that should really help him going forward. In addition, he also commands a changeup and slider, the latter of the two rating as a plus-offering.
While Britton still has minor league options, I really don’t see a scenario where manager Buck Showalter leaves him off the Opening Day roster.
While Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish took all the major headlines this winter, the Baltimore Orioles made a very underrated Nippon League signing, inking 26-year-old Taiwanese southpaw Wei-Yen Chen.
Last season in Japan, Chen posted a 2.68 ERA, 5.1 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 over 165 innings. With a 162 game slate, Chen seems more than capable of posting 200 innings, something the Orioles desperately need this season.
Chen boasts a fastball that sits 92-94, great velocity for a lefty, a split-change and slurvy breaking ball that could develop into a plus pitch according to ESPN's Keith Law. Above all, scouts praise Chen for his exceptional control, as shown by his low career walk rate (2.2 BB/9).
As with all players coming over from Japan, there is a lot of uncertainty with Chen, however his profile suggests he could be a quality No. 4 or No. 5 pitcher going forward.
Last season, left-hander Brian Matusz entered the season as the O’s No. 2 starter, behind Jeremy Guthrie, and was expected to pitch Game 2 of the 2011 season. He was scratched from his start with a back injury, and didn't make his season debut until June 1st, after sitting out a month and a half. The rest of the season was a nightmare for the 24-year-old, who finished with a 10.69 ERA and 2.114 WHIP, including a six-game stretch of 5+ earned runs to end the year.
No one is quite sure what was wrong with Matusz last season. Matusz claims his struggles were caused by mechanic tinkering in Spring Training, although reports suggest he was not mentally prepared heading into camp. Regardless of the reasoning, his fastball was down two miles per hour on the year, his walk rate rose by over one per nine innings and his fly-ball rate soared even higher.
Since October, Matusz has been working with Special Assistant (and former Oriole) Brady Anderson on his strength and conditioning. At Orioles FanFest last month, Anderson declared that Matusz was a “different human,” and ready for a bounce back 2012 campaign.
Of all the rotation candidates, Matusz may still have the highest ceiling next to Zach Britton, and after how well he finished 2010, I’m nowhere near ready to write him off.
Last July, the Orioles shipped reliever Koji Uehara to the Texas Rangers for right-hander Tommy Hunter. Just over a year ago, the burly 25-year-old was the No. 4 starter for World Series runner-up. Now, he's hardly a lock to even make the Orioles' 25-man roster.
While both Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta may have higher ceilings, Hunter provides certainty and stability to the back end of the rotation. Although he will never be confused for a top-of-the-rotation hurler, his terrific control (1.59 BB/9) and big frame, make him a capable innings eater; exactly what the Baltimore rotation needs this season.
After ballooning to over 280 pounds last season, Hunter has dropped twenty this offseason, training with Matusz and special assistant Brady Anderson. With that type of work ethic, Hunter is making it clear that he expects to start this season, and with a strong spring, he should have no problem doing so.
Jake Arrieta, RHP
From the elbow surgery, to the 6.61 ERA over his final six starts, either way you look at it, 25-year-old Jake Arrieta could use a little extra seasoning at Triple-A Norfolk, especially when the other options for No. 4/No. 5 starter aren’t significantly worse.
Chris Tillman, RHP
Like Arrieta, 23-year-old righty Chris Tillman is another former top prospect that could use a little more time in the minor leagues, before being trusted with a rotation spot. Last season, Tillman really struggled with his command, posting a 4.5 BB/9 at Triple-A Norfolk, and 3.6 BB/9 over 13 starts in Baltimore. I believe Tillman can still develop into a solid No. 3 starter for the O's, but he needs to demonstrate some command first.
Alfredo Simon, RHP
Despite filling in as a starter down the stretch, Alfredo Simon is a likely candidate to return the Orioles’ bullpen in a middle relief role.
For the record, I believe Arrieta takes a rotation spot if Guthrie is indeed traded.