Orioles Pitchers Still Trying To Find Their Big League Footing

BALTIMORE—After manager Buck Showalter took over the Orioles on Aug. 3, 2010, the club went 34-23 over the remainder of the 2010 schedule, and the Orioles' young pitching staff led the way. The starters produced 36 quality starts and an ERA of 3.16 in that time.

Seemingly poised to build on that in 2011, the Orioles instead finished in last place in the American League East for the fourth year in a row at 69-93. Their pitching ranked last in the American League for the second time in three years, with a 4.89 ERA, and just about every young Orioles pitcher took a step backward. Baltimore starters posted a dismal 5.39 ERA, and the club's 60 quality starts were the fewest in the majors.

At a time when the club's rivals in the AL East are producing their own good young pitching, the Orioles lag behind the competition in the standings and also in developing the young pitchers they are so heavily relying on to improve the team.

Showalter does not see a common denominater when trying to figure out why most of the club's young arms didn't make progress in 2011. Rather, he feels it's just part of a larger and longer process.

"We are banking on some of the maturing process of our young pitchers," he said. "It's a two- or three-year process for most of them, especially in our division. You have to be true to that process. We think some of those guys are primed to take that next step." 

Lefthander Brian Matusz, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft, suffered the most dramatic fall from grace. He ranked as the organization's top prospect heading into the 2010 season, and finished that year in the big leagues, going 6-0, 1.57 over his last eight starts. With high hopes for 2011, he began last year on the disabled list with a strained left intercostal muscle around his rib cage and returned to post a disastrous 1-9, 10.69 record. His ERA was the highest in a single season in major league history for a pitcher with 10 or more starts.

There were a lot of theories, but few solid answers, in trying to explain what happened to the 24-year-old Matusz, who gave up 3.26 home runs per nine innings. They ranged from the impact of the injury, to the loss of velocity on his fastball, to his conditioning to dealing with a change of pitching coaches in mid-June, when Mark Connor resigned and was replaced by bullpen coach Rick Adair.

Matusz is taking steps to improve his conditioning and regain his fastball by working out this winter with former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, who now works for the organization.

"With Brady, it's getting on a good routine and lifting for power," Matusz said of his workouts. "I lost a lot of velocity when I came back from my injury, so it's important to get that back and get stronger and faster and be more athletic."

Whatever, the reason, hitters preyed on Matusz's diminished stuff. In 2010, AL batters hit just .255 off him and his WHIP was 1.34. In 2011, he posted a 2.11 WHIP and opponents hit .372 against him. 

"It was a down year for me," he said. "It was one of those years you never want to have, but I was able to learn a lot from the season, through the ups and downs and going through circumstances I had never been through before. It is tough to find any positives, except to recognize what went wrong and make adjustments as I prepare for next year."

Health Problems

Lefthander Zach Britton was the organization's top pitching prospect heading into last year, and he had the best season of the young Orioles on the mound. He went 11-11, 4.61 in 28 starts during his rookie season, which began with him going 5-2, 2.14 in his first nine starts. But Britton, a third-round high school pick in the 2006 draft, slowed down after that, including stints on the DL and in the minors.

After producing a 4.66 ERA in 2010, 25-year-old righthander Jake Arrieta went 10-8, 5.05 last year over 22 starts. He didn't pitch after July 31 and had bone spurs removed from his right elbow Aug. 12.

Showalter remains confident both Matusz and Arrieta will return healthy come February, when pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

"We've gotten great reports back on Matusz's progress," Showalter said. "He feels great. He started at a high clip very quickly after the season ended. Jake and Brian are having really good offseasons."

The struggles were not limited to Baltimore's young starters. Working out of the bullpen, Jason Berken's ERA jumped from 3.03 to 5.36 last year and Brad Bergesen went from 4.98 to 5.70. Righthander Chris Tillman, acquired in a February 2008 trade with the Mariners, went 3-5, 5.52 with the Orioles and has made 54 Triple-A starts the past three seasons. Tillman was acquired with Adam Jones in the deal that send Erik Bedard to Seattle, and he was considered the key arm in the deal, but he has not been able to translate his raw ability into major league success.

Showalter said he didn't consider it unusual to see the young pitchers have all the ups and downs.

"I think just about all of them do (struggle) with very few exceptions," Showalter said. "Jake's struggles, I think, were mostly physical. In talking to him, his arm was here with the bone spur and now he has complete freedom, which will be like pitching with a different arm."

The setbacks were also felt in the minors. Righthander Dan Klein, a 2010 second-round pick out of UCLA who was expected to be on the fast track, had a 1.11 ERA between high Class A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, then had shoulder surgery in August. Former Rice righthander Ryan Berry, who also looked to be on the fast track, missed most of last season when doctors removed a cyst from a muscle around his right shoulder. Righthander Matt Hobgood, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2009 draft, returned from a strained rotater cuff to go 0-6, 10.46 in eight games at short-season Aberdeen.

The club does have high hopes for Dylan Bundy, the Oklahoma high school pitcher who was selected fourth overall in last June's draft. He already ranks as the organization's top prospect. The Orioles project Bundy will throw 100-110 innings next season and likely start at low Class A Delmarva. He could move quickly through the minors.  

Hanging On

Despite all the issues with the youngsters, the Orioles remain committed to drafting and developing pitching as their means to move up in the standings. New general manager Dan Duquette has said he is reluctant to trade core players like Jones and Matt Wieters, and the same applies to the young pitchers like Arrieta, Britton and Matusz.

"I've been encouraged because a number of teams have inquired about some of our younger pitching, which tells me they have a future in the major leagues, and we're holding on to them so that future is right here in Baltimore," Duquette said. 

Duquette pledges to beef up the Orioles minor leagues and international efforts and recently hired Gary Rajsich as scouting director and Fred Ferreira as executive director of international recruiting.

"The next step is going to be putting in place a productive player-development operation," Duquette said. "By that, I mean a consistency of an Oriole way of playing winning baseball and consistency at all levels. And that's really an organizational initiative, so people know this is how the Orioles play winning baseball,"  

In the end, the Orioles still believe that their young pitchers can compete in the AL East.

"Some of the best development of young pitchers happens in the offseason when they are away from it and they kind of step back after two or three weeks," Showalter said. "They've got it. I said last year the success of our season would be how quickly they develop. Because it was delayed doesn't mean its denied."

Steve Melewski covers the Orioles for MASNSports.com