July 7, 2009
Young Birds Taking Wing
While the Orioles' offense ranks 10th in the American League in runs scored, it's still loaded with young talent that's only going to get better from here. Beyond the quality of the competition, the real reason that Baltimore is languishing in the American League East is a pitching staff that is allowing nearly five-and-a-half runs per game. But will they get better in the same way that the offense is expected to? Looking at the current staff, the answer is clearly 'no,' but the magic prospect 8-ball sees one of the more talented collections of mound talent around down in their farm system. It's a group that could be the second part of a rebuilding process that brings respectability, if not much more, back to Charm City.
In the big leagues and already among the top center fielders in the game, Adam Jones is a budding superstar, but some believe that another players received in the lopsided Erik Bedard deal will have an even bigger role to play in Baltimore's return to respectability. A second-round pick in 2006, righty Chris Tillman dominated at Double-A as a 20-year-old last year, striking out more than a batter per inning while limiting the league to a .227 batting average. This year, he's been even better at Triple-A Norfolk, posting a 2.69 ERA while again notching more than a strikeout per inning. His greatest strength is a lack of weaknesses, because beyond an ideal 6-foot-5 power pitcher's frame his fastball, power curve, and control all rank as above-average assets right now. He'd do well in the big leagues right now, but the Orioles have decided to use other arms from Norfolk in order to preserve his service-time clock for now.
The Sure Thing
The first pitcher taken in last year's draft (and fourth overall), lefty Brian Matusz has been every bit as good as advertised since signing a deal worth just south of $3.5 million last August. A left-hander with a comparable build to Tillman's, Matusz can't match Tillman's heat, but he more than makes up for it with pinpoint command and two plus secondary pitches, the first a hard-breaking curve, and the other a changeup that falls off the table that he's equally effective in throwing for strikes or using as a chase pitch. After putting up a 2.16 ERA in 11 starts for High-A Frederick, Matusz has taken the Eastern League by storm, allowing just one earned run over 18
While at Texas Christian University, Jake Arrieta failed to live up to expectations during his junior year, but he nevertheless didn't lower his bonus demands, a fact which dropped him to the fifth round inn the draft. The Orioles scooped him up there, and gave him first-round money in the form of a $1.1 million bonus. It's looking like a sound investment so far, as the 23-year-old righty had a 2.59 ERA at Double-A with 70 strikeouts in 59 innings before moving up to join Tillman at Triple-A, where he's continued to shine. A big, physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Arrieta lacks the polish of Matusz or the all-around skills of Tillman, but he arguably has the best fastball of the bunch, with a heater than not only frequently gets into the mid-90s range, but also features excellent sink and run. Most scouts project him as a good No. 3 starter who can easily handle a workload of 200 innings and more. Those types are underrated at times by fans, but they're worth their weight in gold to general managers.
The Extra Parts
To protect this trio, or rather to protect Baltimore from worrying about arbitration with them for a little while yet, the Orioles have used several mid-range prospects in starting roles this year. Brad Bergesen has been a solid piece who should survive in the back end of the rotation for years to come, while right-hander David Hernandez performed admirably, but might have a more prosperous big-league future coming out of the pen. Also, don't forget about Troy Patton, the lefty who was the main prize from Houston in the Miguel Tejada deal. After missing all of 2008 recovering from shoulder surgery, Patton had a 1.99 ERA in 11 starts for Bowie, but has struggled so far in four Triple-A starts, giving up 13 runs in 22
So When Do the Orioles Get Good?
The big trio of Tillman, Matusz, and Arrieta will all likely play major roles in Baltimore's 2010 rotation, but with that much young pitching, predicting a breakout season comparable to last year's Rays seems a bit much. A better comparison as far as a step forward goes is that next year's Orioles might be like this year's Rangers, truly competitive, while giving fans the sense that the best is yet to come. The best three teams in American League all play in the East this year, but by 2011 that number might be four.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .