Yes, the title in itself may seem like a joke, but when we dig a little deeper there are quite a few intriguing questions that surround the Baltimore Orioles. Previously, we looked at a few Orioles position players who need to have success in order to stick in the big leagues. Now it’s time to discuss the Orioles’ young pitching staff. The Orioles have several pitchers who were among the best prospects in baseball over the past couple years. Those pitchers’ inability to progress to the levels that Baltimore would have hoped is a big reason that the Orioles remain at the back end of the standings in the American League East.
This offseason the Orioles have decided to take a different approach to things, signing two pitchers out of Japan’s Central League. Both Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen are left handed starting pitchers known for finesse. Wada, who is the safer bet of the two to contribute next season, posted a 1.53 ERA with 168 strikeouts in 184 2/3 innings last season. Not bad. Chen throws a little bit harder than Wada, but according to Baseball Prospectus his strikeout rates have decreased over the past few years. That is not a good sign for someone who is only 26 years old. While the two left handed imports might provide some rotation stability behind Jeremy Guthrie and Tommy Hunter, they could be taking away starts from people who have a higher upside.
Zach Britton was ranked as the #11 prospect in baseball by Keith Law coming into 2011 and had “the best sinker in the minor leagues” according to Baseball America. He wasn’t supposed to make the big league club out of Spring Training last year, but an injury to Brian Matusz, who we’ll get to later, resulted in Britton starting the Orioles’ third game of 2011. He didn’t disappoint in his big league debut, tossing 6 innings of one run ball against the Rays and earning a win. Britton kept pitching well, which prevented the Orioles from sending him to the minor leagues. Through his first 17 starts, Britton looked like a candidate for American League Rookie of the Year, as he was 6-6 with a 3.47 ERA. His BABIP against was slightly above average at .282, but it certainly did not point to a large regression. However, a large regression is exactly what happened. On July 8th, Britton got absolutely mauled by the Red Sox, giving up eight runs in just 2/3 of an inning. The next day, Britton was optioned to AA Bowie. The Orioles claimed they made the move in order to limit Britton’s innings. The main part of the plan though, was to leave him in the minor leagues for twenty days in order to delay his free agency by a year. Britton was not happy and voiced his displeasure – who could blame him? After he was recalled on July 30th, Britton made two starts before being shelved with a shoulder injury. After being activated in late August, Britton spent the rest of the season in the rotation.
Overall, Britton finished the season at 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA in 154.1 innings over 28 starts. Not bad for a 23 year old rookie in the American League East. However, if we dig a little deeper, there is reason to get excited about Britton for next season. First, Britton’s groundball rate (52.8%) was excellent and his .70 HR/9 would have ranked 7th in the American League if he had pitched enough innings to qualify (he needed just 7 more innings). Not to mention his FIP was 4.00. Although Britton had a 5.76 ERA after being recalled from AA, his BABIP against was .341 and he gave up just 3 home runs in 50 innings. Clearly, Britton’s back-to-back starts in which he gave up 13 earned runs in just an inning of work helped to inflate his ERA. If Britton can continue to build on the success he had during the first half of 2011, then he will probably be the most valuable member of the Baltimore’s rotation in 2012.
Jake Arrieta entered 2011 as Baltimore’s 4th starter. Ranked as the Orioles #4 prospect and #99 in baseball by Baseball America coming into 2010, Arrieta has arguably the lowest ceiling of the Orioles’ young starting pitchers, due to inconsistent control. After a rapid ascent through the minors, Arrieta won his big league debut against the Yankees in June 2010. Arrieta remained in the rotation for the rest of the season, going 6-6 with a 4.66 ERA over 100.1 innings in 18 starts. He left a few things to be desired though, including a low strikeout rate (4.66 K/9) and high walk rate (4.31 BB/9). Arrieta’s strikeout rate improved last season (7.01 K/9), but his walk rate went up slightly (4.45 BB/9) and his home run rate nearly doubled. As a result, Arrieta had a 5.05 ERA in 119.1 innings over 22 starts before being shut down with a shoulder injury in August.
Arrieta’s lack of progress last season is somewhat troubling. What’s worse is that his numbers arguably got worse, while his BABIP against went from .289 in 2010 to .272 in 2011. While Arrieta will most likely claim a spot at the back of Baltimore’s rotation, it could be interesting to see how he would fare in the bullpen. Arrieta’s average fastball velocity over the past two seasons is 92.5 MPH. If his velocity could play up in the bullpen, Arrieta would be an intriguing late inning option for manager Buck Showalter. Arrieta’s erratic control would be another reason to covert him to a reliever. However, since Arrieta is a three-pitch pitcher who has somewhat established himself as a starter, it is very unlikely that he will be a member of the bullpen at the end of Spring Training.
Now the fun starts. It’s time to look at Chris Tillman. Tillman somewhat reminds me of Chris Volstad, because he has seemingly fallen out of favor with the Orioles organization, much like Volstad did with the Marlins before being traded. It also helps my cause that like Volstad, Tillman is a tall, lanky right-handed starting pitcher. Drafted by the Mariners and traded to Baltimore in the infamous George Sherrill deal, Tillman has yet to reach his potential after parts of three seasons in the Orioles’ rotation. After posting a 9.22 K/9 rate and a 2.70 ERA in 18 starts at AAA in 2009, Tillman was promoted by the Orioles at the end of July and remained in the rotation for the remainder of the season. The results were not good. His 5.40 K/9, 3.32 BB/9 and 2.08 HR/9 all led to Tillman being worth -0.1 WAR (FanGraphs). Despite a decreased HR/9 rate in 2010, Tillman didn’t fare much better in a cameo of 11 starts. His strikeout rate stayed stagnant but his walk rate increased to 5.20 BB/9, which is hardly a recipe for success. Tillman started the 2011 season in the Orioles’ rotation. His season started auspiciously, pitching 6 shutout innings against the Rays while receiving a no decision. It was all downhill from there though and Tillman was demoted to AAA at the end of May after posting a 4.69 ERA through 10 starts. He was recalled on July 30th to pitch the first half of a doubleheader (Britton pitched the 2nd game) and would last two more starts before being sent down to AAA once again.
The fact that Tillman did not receive a September call up speaks volumes about his standing in the Baltimore organization. Although he finished 2011 with a 5.52 ERA in 62 innings over 13 starts, Tillman began to show signs of progress last season. His 3.99 FIP was by far the best of his three stints in the big leagues, due to improved strikeout (6.68 K/9), walk (3.63 BB/9) and homerun (0.73) rates. He was able to post those numbers despite an inflated BABIP against of .348. Although Tillman doesn’t possess the power stuff typical of someone who is 6’6, if he can continue to put up the same peripherals as he did in 2011, he could settle in as a good back of the rotation pitcher. However, due to the Orioles’ recent signings of Wada and Chen in addition to the fact that he was not added to the big league roster in September, Tillman seems like a safe bet to begin 2012 in AAA.
Brian Matusz was ranked the #5 prospect in baseball by Baseball America going into the 2010 season, after an 8 start cup of coffee in 2009. He didn’t disappoint, winning 10 games with a 4.30 ERA while posting solid marks in both K/9 (7.33) and BB/9 (3.23). When taking into account the fact that Matusz did this in the AL East as a 23-year-old rookie, it was hard to not be excited about his potential coming into 2011.
Matusz got off to a bad start in 2011 by being on the disabled list due to an intercostal strain until June. Matusz pitched well in his first two games of 2011, but there was clearly something wrong. Matusz’s velocity was down almost 2 mph from 2010, which definitely played a big role in his struggles. Matusz is an extreme fly ball pitcher – 50.3 FB% and his decreased velocity probably led to his inflated 3.26 HR/9 ratio. Matusz was terrible last season. His 10.69 ERA was the worst in Major League Baseball history for a pitcher who made at least 10 starts in a season. The good news for Matusz is that the person who previously held the record was Roy Halladay. The bad news is that Matusz could be in serious trouble if he doesn’t regain some of the velocity he lost. Matusz will probably be guaranteed a spot in the rotation coming into Spring Training. However, if he looks like the Brian Matusz of 2011 instead of the 2010 version he could find himself in AAA rather quickly.
The Orioles bullpen isn’t exactly an exciting bunch, but there are two people I want to quickly mention. The first is Brad Bergesen. The reason I’m mentioning him under the reliever category is because I think he should be a reliever. Bergesen has been a starter for the majority of his time in the big leagues, but spent the majority of last season in the bullpen. Bergesen debuted in 2009, posting a 3.43 ERA, 2.34 BB/9 and a solid 50.1% ground ball ratio in 123.1 innings over 19 starts. While those numbers are all very good, his strikeout rate of 4.74 K/9 was scary. During the 2009-2010 offseason, Bergesen famously injured himself in the while filming a commercial for MASN. He made 28 starts in 2010, but his lack of strikeouts (4.29 K/9) and an increased HR/9 rate caught up to him and Bergesen finished the year with a 4.98 ERA. He spent last year as a swingman and posted a 5.70 ERA in 34 games (12 starts).
So why do I think Bergesen should strictly be a reliever? Simple. He doesn’t strike out a lot of people and he throws from a low arm slot. As a result, it is probably easier for lefties to track the baseball against him. His career platoon splits – .266/.308/.440 vs. righties and .294/.356/.490 vs. lefties would indicate that he could do well as a righty specialist. I will say that I used this basis to argue that Justin Masterson should remain in the bullpen as well, but he was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball last season and isn’t moving anytime soon. Maybe I’ll be right about Bergesen though.
The Orioles were discussing making Jim Johnson a starter. Instead, he will remain in the bullpen and he will continue to get groundballs with his heavy sinker in the late innings of games. My question for the Orioles is: why isn’t this guy the closer? I understand that Kevin Gregg is being paid to pitch the ninth inning, but Kevin Gregg is really, really bad. Based on pure stuff, Johnson could be a pretty solid closer if given the chance.
So there it is, a look at both the position players and pitchers for the Orioles who are intriguing to watch for next season. The Orioles probably have the largest collection of players at a crossroads in their career on both sides of the ball in the MLB. While Baltimore probably has no chance of being competitive next season, they could be an interesting team if some of these players continue to develop into quality major leaguers. If anything, the Orioles need some of these players to have success next season, because of a farm system that lacks anything in the way of quality, big league ready talent.