Brian Matusz threw his ballcap into the ring for the open fifth starter spot Wednesday with a dominant outing: four innings pitched, no hits, one walk, seven strikeouts and no flyball outs.
Granted it was the Minnesota Twins without Joe Mauer (World Baseball Classic) and Trevor Plouffe (strained calf).
But Matusz was very impressive. The question, though, is this: ‘Is he really in the rotation competition?’
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Orioles manager Buck Showalter says yes. He says Tommy Hunter, who threw two perfect innings Wednesday, also is in that competition. So, too, are Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, Jair Jurrjens and T.J. McFarland. If we want to be complete, we should throw top prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman in as well.
But, in reality, I see it as a three-pitcher race: Arrieta, Johnson and Britton.
(It seems as if Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and, assuming he is healthy, Chris Tillman, have rotation spots to begin the season).
Bundy and Gausman are headed for more seasoning in the minors. McFarland could wiggle his way onto the roster as a reliever, because the Orioles would like to keep the Rule 5 selection. But, barring injury, there is no room for him in the bullpen. The guess is the Orioles either offer him back to the Cleveland Indians or try to work out a trade to keep him.
One scenario is that McFarland is kept in the bullpen and Matusz wins the fifth starter role. That’s not an impossibility, but Matusz was so dominant in the bullpen last year and his numbers as a starter aren’t nearly as impressive (5.51 ERA as a starter versus 1.35 ERA as a reliever).
Given the way injuries occur in baseball, I could see Matusz getting some starts this season. He certainly would be in the mix if someone gets hurt or is ineffective.
To begin the year, though, I think Matusz is in the 'pen (and so is Hunter). The reason is simple: I think this is Arrieta’s spot to lose.
Arrieta, the Orioles’ Opening Day starter last year, turned 27 this month. No one on the staff has better stuff. He’s had success in the majors and really doesn’t belong in the minors anymore – he ends up dominating at Triple-A after each demotion once he gets his head cleared.
This is a fish-or-cut-bait season for Arrieta. The Orioles need to know what he is: A consistent big league starter or a guy who just can’t reach his vast potential?
Steve Johnson did really well for the Orioles last season; Zach Britton is left-handed and has great stuff; Matusz, as he showed Wednesday night, is really good when he attacks the strike zone.
All might get a chance to crack the rotation – along with Jurrjens – at some point. And Gausman and Bundy are coming, for sure.
But I think the Orioles, deep down, want Arrieta to win this. They know they are a better team if he can be what he should be.
And they have to find out now. So, assuming Arrieta continues to pitch fairly well this spring, he should be the last piece of the April rotation.
It’s in his hands to make it happen.