On Thursday, July 9th, Baseball America unveiled it's Top 25 prospects in baseball, showing who tops the list at midseason. Teams with bright farm systems, like the Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, San Francisco Giants, and Baltimore Orioles were sure to have fans jumping up and down to see the list.
The fan base of the Baltimore Orioles has to be excited at the moment. In the top 10, the O's had two pitching prospects (Chris Tillman, 8th, and Brian Matusz, 9th). It's especially exciting for O's fans because the team is in dire need of starting pitching.
So far in the 2009 season, the O's have gotten solid pitching out of rookies Brad Bergesen (5-3, 3.59 ERA, 23 BB, 50 K) and David Hernandez (2-2, 3.94 ERA). However, outside of the two youngsters, it's a mess.
Rich Hill has very inconsistent command of his fastball, and the only pitch he can control at any count is his curveball. Hill has had his fair share of good starts this year. He had good appearances against Kansas City, Washington, Seattle, and Philadelphia. However, when he's not on, he's a disaster.
In a start against Oakland, he lasted two-thirds of an inning, walking four and hitting a batter. In his last three starts, he's pitched a combined 13 innings, allowed 23 hits and 19 runs, struck out 11, and walked 11. Put the math together, and he has a 13.15 ERA in his last three appearances.
Jason Berken is somewhat reminiscent of Hill. While Hill fires the fastball at 88-89 MPH, Berken can throw the ball around 92 MPH. Both pitchers have spotty command. Through eight starts, Berken is 1-5 with a 6.32 earned run average, 15 walks, and 25 strikeouts.
While Berken was actually solid in his first two starts (1-1, 2.25 ERA, 12 IP, 3 ER), he has since been terrible. In his last six starts, he has only pitched 28 and one-third innings (not even five innings per start), allowed 25 runs, and posted a 0-4 record and 7.94 ERA.
Jeremy Guthrie hasn't been as good this year as he was throughout the 2008 season. It was just last year when Guthrie would consistently give the O's quality starts. In 30 starts, the 2002 first round pick went 10-12, but posted a 3.63 ERA, and tossed one complete game. His lack of run support must have been devastating, and it may have carried over to this year.
So far in 18 starts, Guthrie is 6-8 with a 5.35 ERA and 1.43 WHIP, has allowed 20 home runs (most in MLB), and hasn't been nearly as good as some fans would've hoped.
Seeing Matusz and Tillman ranked in the top 10 gives O's fans a collective sigh of relief. From 1998-2004, not only were the O's an embarrassing team to watch, the minor league system was a complete disaster.
But then, in 2005, Joe Jordan took over as the director of scouting, and has since executed some solid drafts, barring of course, the disaster that is the 2006 Orioles class. Since then, Andy MacPhail also signed on with the O's as president of baseball operations, and the plan of lining up elite minor league talent has worked. Tillman and Matusz are ideal representatives of that.
Last year, Tillman had a great season for Double-A Bowie. At the age of 20, he was able to dominate the competition, going 11-4, posting a 3.18 ERA, striking out 154, and posting a .227 opponent's batting average in 135 and two-thirds innings. However, he was his own worst enemy.
In those 135 innings, he walked 65 batters (over four walks per nine innings), which was very worrisome for O's fans. Some avid followers of the minors said that, Tillman at 20, should again stay at Double-A Bowie and work on command. The O's didn't see it that way.
Andy MacPhail and Co. felt a move to Triple-A would be justified and felt comfortable that Tillman would improve command-wise. That he has.
In 16 starts, the 6'5", 195 pound right-handed fireballer is 7-5 with an incredible 2.50 ERA, has struck out 88, and walked just 22. He has made great strides with his command, and has also proved he can go deep into games. However, command is not the only thing some fans don't quite trust with Tillman.
Another knock on him was that he can't pitch into the seventh. However, in his last two starts, he has combined to pitch 13 and two-thirds innings, allowing 10 hits, no runs, one walk, and 14 strikeouts. In the first start, he pitched into the eighth. In the second, he pitched a six-inning shutout, and you could make an argument he could've gone further.
Tillman is the complete package on the mound. He has ideal build (6'5", 195). His fastball, ranging from 91-96 MPH, is very deceptive and projects as a pitch that will be hard for major league hitters to pick up coming out of his hand. His curveball is a plus pitch and complements his fastball well. His changeup is above-average, and it's still developing. Also, his mechanics are nearly flawless, and his motion allows him to have great balance.
While Matusz has better numbers and overall command, Tillman was rated 8th, a spot higher than the lefty. However, Matusz has asserted himself as a prospect who could emerge as the ace of the staff in the future. He's done it with command, consistency, and overall, spitting in the general direction of the opposition.
The O's 2008 first round pick has exceeded the organization's original expectations. In 15 starts, the 6'5", 200 pound lefty is 8-2, has a 1.65 ERA, has shutouts in six of his starts, and sports a .198 opponent's batting average.
You could make a solid argument he's the Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The only pitcher really contesting him is Giants farmhand Madison Bumgarner, but Matusz has a lower ERA, opponent's batting average, just three more hits allowed in 12 and two-thirds more innings, and has a much better strikeout-walk ratio.
Matusz is listed as the ninth prospect in baseball, a surprisingly low ranking for the roll he's on. Since May 26th, Matusz is 5-0 with an ERA of 0.19. Since moving up to Double-A on June 17th, he has stepped it up a notch. In four starts at his next level, he's won in all four attempts, has pitched 26 and one-third innings, allowed just one run, walked six, and struck out 32. In his last start, he allowed one hit, no runs, and struck out 11 in eight innings. He faced the minimum amount of batters—24.
The O's already have reason for optimism in the majors. The outfield trio of Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, and Adam Jones is a very talented one, and are even getting the credit they deserve. And then, of course, there is Matt Wieters, the supremely talented rookie catcher, and fellow rookie Brad Bergesen, who has excelled to a great degree on the mound. But Tillman and Matusz give the fans of the Orioles hope for a better future. And don't forget Jake Arrieta.