Brian Matusz: Still Want Justin Smoak, Orioles Fans?

Bleacher Report Senior Writer IJune 30, 2009

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Brian Matusz #86 of the Baltimore Orioles poses during photo day at the Orioles spring training complex on February 23, 2009 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

On June 9, 2008, San Diego University left handed pitcher Brian Matusz got the biggest phone call of his life. It was a call from O's front office executive Joe Jordan, telling the youngster the team would tab him with the fourth overall pick in the 2009 MLB First Year Player Draft.

The O's certainly had a tough decision to make. Some analysts thought it would've been wise to take South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak, or even Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso. Both first basemen, they were solid prospects, and also fit the O's team needs.

However, the O's opted to bolster an already strong abundance of arms in the minor leagues. Matusz signed hours before the August 15th deadline, signing a "bargain" of a $3.72M signing bonus.

Matusz signed very late, so he would get some seasoning in the Arizona Fall League. There, his numbers weren't impressive, but statistics don't always tell the story. In seven starts, he went 2-4, posting a 4.73 ERA, struck out 31, and walked seven.

The O's would want to investigate, and invited the first round selection to Spring Training, where he excelled, pitching four and two thirds of shutout ball, allowing two hits, walking one, and striking out five.

The organization, as expected, started him at Single A Frederick, as they did with mega-prospect Matt Wieters. Matusz struggled early, allowing five runs in his first eight and two thirds innings.

The Frederick coaching staff wasn't allowing him to go very deep into games—as you can see. In his first start, he allowed two runs in four and two thirds innings, followed by a performance in which he allowed three runs over five frames.

However, as time progressed, you could see there was something special in Matusz. In his next start, he went six innings, allowing just one run, and striking out eight. Unfortunately, thanks to an abysmal Frederick offense and defense, Matusz got a loss.

Run support didn't get better. What did get better is Brian Matusz. He continued to pile on good outings.

His next start was again solid, as he allowed two runs in six innings against a powerful Potomac Nationals team. He struck out eight, improving his record to 2-1.

The lefty faced Potomac again on May 1, and struggled mightily, allowing three runs on six hits in five and a third innings. He was 2-1 and had a 3.67 ERA, hardly first round pick worthy. Many fans were wondering: should the O's have taken Smoak, who was excelling in the Rangers farm system? Matusz made that question turn into a two-letter answer very quickly.

His very next start was perhaps his best to date. In seven innings, he allowed six hits, two runs (one earned), and struck out a whopping 13 batters. However, Wilmington starter Daniel Duffy pitched a gem, allowing three hits and no runs over six and a third innings, and Matusz received a very harsh loss.

Matusz got a loss—and was just 2-2—but some critics had been silenced, and in the minors, wins and losses are often deceptive. It only got better from then on. The quality starts came. And came. And came.

He showed the definition of an ace in a start against Lynchburg. He allowed three runs. No, not the definition of ace. But he went seven innings, and was able to get a victory—a well deserved one—without his best stuff.

If nothing else, it's incredibly encouraging to see that. After the start, Matusz was 3-2 with a very solid 3.09 earned run average. After that, there was no stopping Matusz. He again dueled with Duffy in a May start in which Matusz pitched shutout baseball through seven innings, but an anemic Frederick offense gave Matusz a no-decision in a 1-0 loss.

From there, the story is simple. Matusz quieted the few critics there once were. In a May 31 start, he pitched seven innings, allowing five hits, no runs, and lowering his ERA to 2.37 and raising his record to 4-2. Not a bad way to end the month.

More shutouts to come for Matusz was nothing new, and a promotion to Double A was no surprise. What would be interesting, however, was his debut at his new level. There was no suspense there. None. Zip. Nada. In six innings, he allowed three hits, no runs, walked one, and struck out ten, an unbelievable debut for a 22-year-old lefty one year removed from college.

To give the youngster some rest, O's executive David Stockstill said that Matusz's June 22 start would be skipped.

"We felt like he needed the time off," Stockstill said. "We're very cautious with these young arms."

Luckily for O's fans, it wasn't a sudden injury. The rookie hadn't missed a start yet, so one skip wouldn't mean the world. He disappointed his next start, however. He allowed a run—something he hadn't done in SIX starts.

In those six starts, he had pitched 32 and one third innings, allowing a grand total of ONE run. One run. In six starts. In those six starts, he had 30 strikeouts, eight walks, and a video game-like 0.28 earned run average.

On the year, Matusz's stats are incredible. He is 6-2, has a 1.96 ERA, has pitched 78 innings, allowed 62 hits, has walked 25, struck out 90, and has yielded a lowly .215 opponent's batting average.

With those stats, you would think Matusz is a fireballer. Wrong. In fact, Matusz is a guy who throws in the low 90s, peaking at 94 MPH. The reason he's so dominant is he has command of all of his pitches, and has a feel for pitching that isn't common in your average pitcher.

So, O's fans, still want Justin Smoak?