Just when you thought they were out, the Orioles got themselves a new general manager, Dan Duquette, this offseason and set about the business of replacing a starting rotation that had a league-worst 5.39 ERA last year.
They signed two Japanese hurlers, Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada in an attempt to shortcut a development process that has shown no sign of ever ending. Wada, 31, has been slowed by elbow soreness but is slowly recovering. So far, so good.
They subsequently acquired veteran Jason Hammel (along with reliever Matt Lindstrom) in a two-for-one deal for Jeremy Guthrie. Hammel is a league-average pitcher at best—and might not even be that after his strikeout rate plummeted last year—but again, let us give a trumpet bray for the possibility of basic competence.
Even more encouraging, two former top prospects, Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz, have pitched well enough to earn rotation spots. Arrieta has a 4.88 ERA in 40 major-league starts and missed time last year with bone spurs in his elbow.
Matusz, a former fourth-overall draft pick (2008) was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball a couple of years ago but last was quite literally historically bad last season, with a record 10.69 ERA in 49.2 innings. The dodo seemed more likely to make a comeback than Matusz, and yet he is poised to reclaim his place in the rotation. For once, luck has favored the Orioles… right?
Wrong. Southpaw Zach Britton was one of the top prospects in baseball prior to making his major-league debut with the Orioles last year. He is that rare combination, a ground-ball pitcher who can also get strikeouts.
His rookie year wasn’t exactly a runaway success, as his command wandered, his strikeout rate was lower than expected, and right-handed hitters handled him fairly easily (.281/.347/.401). Still, that was his rookie year. You expect a young hurler to have some growing pains. This season would be the year Britton capitalized on last season’s lessons.
It seems unlikely to happen now. Yesterday, Britton was reported to have made an appointment to see Dr. James Andrews, orthopedist to famous arms. Inflammation and soreness in Britton’s pitching shoulder have kept him out all spring. The problem has lingered since last August, and though the shoulder is not thought to be torn, it’s never a good sign when a pitcher shakes hands with Dr. Andrews—that hand has a good chance of ending up in a sling.
There are children in college this year who cannot remember the last winning Orioles teams, and many a Sweet 16 party will feature birthday girls who were not alive when Davey Johnson took the team to the 1997 playoffs. Maybe this is the year that all changes, but it seems more likely that next year’s Sweet 16s will not be having a Buck Showalter-themed party.