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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.


The Stud

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 1/3 innings in his first three starts for Bowie. One pro scout who recently saw him exclaimed, “You could put him in the big-league rotation right now,” but as with Tillman, the Orioles are sticking to the master plan for now.


The Workhorse

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 1/3 innings. He still projects as another fourth or fifth starter who could be ready soon.


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 Insider.

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metty5
7/07
Great stuff. I had concerns about Arrieta's slider and curve, has he tightened those pitches up this season? Oh, and just because I had this conversation recently, how does Drabek compare to him? I give Drabek the slight edge due the perceived (by my accounts) better secondary stuff. Thanks KG.
kgoldstein
7/07
I would give Drabek the edge as well. Arrietta secondary stuff is really just average, but the fastball is pretty special.
birkem3
7/07
It's arguable that the East already has the four best teams in the AL.
llewdor
7/07
The Hit List seems to think so.
dbthewise1313
7/07
Also, Brandon Erbe. But he's working his way back from injury and has been inconsistent in the past. What's the status on Chorye Spoone's injury?
2004Champs
7/07
How good would Seattle be going forward if they had Jones and Tillman right now instead of Bedard. They'd even have the serviceable relief work of Sherrill in the mix as well. Terrible trade...
mdrcoug
7/07
Tell me about it. I cry myself to sleep each night thinking about it. I remember telling my brother that it would have been justified if the Mariners were good last year, but that I didn't think they were going to be. Bavasi is a four letter word in my household.
llewdor
7/07
He was such a friendly, accommodating guy. Just a lousy GM, though.
TheDumbSmartGuy
7/07
So what's Brandon Erbe at this point? Junk in the attic?
offbase99
7/08
I'd feel more sanguine about the O's being competitive in 2010 and among the best teams in the AL in 2011 if I could figure out who's going to play 1st, 2nd, 3rd and short in those years. As far as I can tell, the only hitting prospect anywhere in the system -- or at least, in the upper minors, if (like KG) you're a believer in the O's track star 2008 draft. (I'm not.) That guy is Brandon Snyder, a fringy ex-catching prospect, who's hitting well this year but everyone says is atrocious in the field. I'm not sure you can count on him as a MLB 1B. But let's assume Synder hits his 90th projectile in the same way that Nolan Reimold seems to have. Then what? Brian Roberts looks almost done already, and he's signed through 2257. Cesar Izturis and Robert Andino are waiver-wire fodder. And there isn't a 3B anywhere in the system. The O's are my hometown team. I'd love to see them relevant again. I just don't see it -- not yet. Now, if MacPhail has a great trade deadline, then we can talk.
tcatts86
7/08
Brian Roberts looks "almost done"? He's posting a 16.9 VORP, which puts him 0.1 points away from being in the top 5 second basemen in the AL. And he's playing pretty average defense. That's not a superstar, but it's a long, long way from being "almost done" if he can sustain it for another couple of years.
offbase99
7/08
Check out Roberts' hitting month-by-month: April: .356/.426/.511 May: .256/.328/.444 June: .235/.297/.357 Small sample size and all, but for the past two months, Roberts looks to be headed towards the same cliff that claimed an awful lot of second basemen with similar skills at Roberts' age (e.g., Chuck Knoblauch). I am open to the possibility that the past two months are an aberration and Roberts will be a useful player this year (age 31) and possibly next (age 32). But I think the odds are basically overwhelmingly against him being a useful player by the time the Orioles are ready to compete -- and I have to think that a smart front office is considering that possibility as well.
LuckyJim
7/08
Brian Matusz celebrated your article by going 8 last night, with one hit, no walks and 11 strikeouts. One hitter over the minimum. In his last 56 innings between A+ and AA he's given up five runs. So, I guess the big question is: are Tillman and Matusz both top-20 prospects? As for offbase's comments - the O's don't seem concerned about Snyder's defense, which they think is improving. And the fact that his numbers have gotten better as he's risen through the system post-injury bode well. They can tolerate a .280/.340/.500 bat at 1B with above average production from C, 2B, RF, CF and possibly LF. Really, the issues are more likely to be SS and 3B. I don't mind Izturis at SS - when healthy, his glove makes him an okay guy, but they need to develop someone long-term. 3B is a FA issue - my guess is they'll go with a good glove, average/above average guy - think a reduced-value Beltre, Figgins, Crede, etc. Just my thoughts. We'll see what they do. And what Huff, Baez, Sherrill, Guthrie and, perhaps, Scott bring back in trade.
offbase99
7/08
1. I don't share your optimism that Brian Roberts will be an above-average 2B next year. You've been watching his last two months, right? 2. The FA 3B pool is really ugly -- take a look: http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2008/12/2010-mlb-free-a.html I don't see how Beltre and Crede, with their sub-750 OPSs, are "above average guys." And I expect that the bidding on Figgins will vastly outstrip his actual value (lifetime OPS: .748). 3. I agree with you that the team is headed towards an inflection point. IF they ship out Huff, Baez, Guthrie, Sherrill and Scott (and, I would argue, Roberts), then this team might be in good shape by 2011. But there was basically no reason not to ship out Huff *last* year at the trade deadline, and the O's kept him anyway. So I guess I'm a bit more cautiously optimistic than you are. As I said above: I am rooting for this team. I want baseball in Baltimore to be fun again. I just am not sure we're as close as conventional wisdom seems to think.
LuckyJim
7/08
I'm talking about defensive value, not OPS w/ 3B. Getting someone in the .780-.820 range who plays consistent plus defense. Beltre's pretty consistently worth at least 10 runs on defense. If he can put up an .820 OPS (and his .850+ OPS away from Seattle implies he might) then he's a very valuable 3B. That's an "if" but I think that's what the O's will look for. (Crede is worth about 10 when healthy and Figgins a bit more erratic.) Thus, Beltre has offered about $15m in value the last three years, Figgins $10m and Crede, when healthy, at least $10m. All have their risks. If Beltre has a strong second half, however, I think he's the kind of guy who could thrive in Baltimore and give MacPhail exactly what he's looking for. Provided we can get him at something like $10-11m a year. Sticking with something crude like OPS as a basis for value is a little narrow, I think. I'm the king of cautious optimism. And don't take for granted this team will compete. More worrisome to me (in my opinion) is the sub-radar problems with our OF defense (Jones and Markakis) and expected production from Wieters and the pitchers. Agree w/ the above post re: Britton. With a developing change-up, he should be a top-100 kind of guy at the end of th year. If Roberts' slump continues longer, sure, I worry. I don't take a month that's anomalous from the past several years and immediately think "done", however.
offbase99
7/08
Well, never hurts to be an optimist. We both agree, however, that the key to the next few weeks is trading off Huff, Baez, etc... So why are the Orioles looking to move bench players instead? http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/bal-osnotes0707,0,5313097.story
Drungo
7/08
Two months does not make (or break) a career. I think you're letting your distaste for Roberts' contract extension color your view of his future. Ray Durham had a poor May/June of 2002, his age 30 season. Worse than Roberts this year. He bounced back that summer, then continued on being a very good second baseman for four more years.
offbase99
7/09
That's fair. I do think the Roberts contract is awful, and as I look at his comparables, I see guys who fall off the cliff in their early 30s. Durham might be a superficially tempting comparison, but Ray Durham had considerably more power than Roberts. He was slugging in the .460s at age 31 and averaging more HR than B-Rob has hit in a season. Roberts' career line is .283/.354/.418. I can't find another second baseman with those numbers whose career lasted into his mid-to-late 30s. Can you? Meanwhile, I can find a bunch of guys with similar (Knoblauch) or even superior skills (Roberto Alomar), who hit the wall. It's not perfect, of course. But a smart organization ought to be considering the possibility that these two months are the beginning of the end.
fireorlime
7/08
One more O's pitching prospect to keep an eye on, a guy who has surpassed Hernandez/Patton/Spoone/Erbe in my opinion, is Zach Britton. At 21 years old in high A ball he's finally developed a consistent 3rd pitch (changeup), he's striking out a batter per 9, has a 3/1 GB/FB ratio, 0.11 HR/9, a 2.40 ERA and has improved at every level. From Caleb Joseph's blog, "One of the hardest guy’s I’ve ever had to catch because he’s got such tremendous movement… movement at 91-92 mph. He can pitch at 93-94 but throws better at 91. Changeup as of late has been amazing. Slider is really coming around and he’s getting great success against lefties with that pitch. He’s still young, but a great teammate. Another quality guy that I love spending time with. His walks will go down as he finds the slot with his fastball. I’m not worried one bit about the walks, and neither should you."
eighteen
7/08
Mark Buehrle was in the majors at 21. Those numbers from a 21-year-old at High A are unimpressive.
fireorlime
7/08
Randy Johnson's first full season in the majors wasn't until age 26. Pitchers follow different developmental paths, there's no one route to success. Britton has moved up a level every year and gotten better at every level as he's moved up, you can't ask for much more than that. Someone with big time ground ball tendencies, great stuff AND high strikeout rates is a great prospect.
LindInMoskva
7/08
I wouldn't discount Snyder too much, Scott is performing well, and Nolan Reimold looks good so far. I am kind of surprised that we aren't seeing Reimold at 1b, Scott in LF with Snyder replacing a traded Huff at DH. Roberts may have a nice long career and looks good defensively at 2b. That leaves a replacement level/good defensive SS to complete the offense.
offbase99
7/09
Third base?
fireorlime
7/09
Many O's fans have been pushing for Snyder to move to 3B in Norfolk to get some experience there. I think optimally we trade Huff, move Scott to 1B and at least for this year Wigginton can take over for Huff. Reimold could also move to 1B to keep Scott at DH. Nolan has good athleticism and speed and a cannon for an arm, but takes poor routes to any ball in front of him and has inexplicable mental lapses on a consistent basis. I still like the idea of giving Pie more time at LF to see what he can do. At the very least he's going to provide great defense and his bat still has potential.
offbase99
7/10
There is zero chance Snyder can play 3B at the major-league level. I agree with you re: Pie. Why not trade Scott?
fireorlime
7/10
Well, I think the chances are higher than zero though admittedly it's not likely. It's just frustrating to have a logjam at 1B and nobody in site for 3B. Really it's something that should have happened 2 years ago. The thing with Scott is he's cheap, very productive and under team control until 2013. He's more than a platoon player at the plate, he's more than a DH and actually plays solid defense in LF (22.1 UZR/150 in 2006 and 7.1 UZR/150 in 2008). I see him as a guy that's undervalued by the market and I don't expect us to get an appropriate return back. I could be wrong and am open to trading him in the right deal but he was a throw in as part of a 5 player trade for Miggy.
fireorlime
7/12
Not sure if anyone is still reading this thread but check out these quotes first from Dave Stockstill and second from Snyder himself. "Brandon Snyder has played some 3rd base at each level, including when he was at Bluefield. He continually works at 3rd base and played there a little in the Arizona Fall League this past fall. Our staff continually evaluates his progress at each position to find the best situation for him to become a productive player to help our major league team." "I love playing third base, and it's probably my favorite place to play, but if I can play first base in the big leagues, so be it. ... I hope I do get a chance to play a little more third, but like I said, wherever I can make the lineup, that's what I want to do."