Orioles Preview: Success hinges on young pitchers

The cavalry had arrived. Buck Showalter was on the bench. Significant acquisitions dotted the lineup.

And the Baltimore Orioles went 69-93 in 2011.

In the ensuing offseason, the biggest story for an organization that has produced as many winning records over the the last 14 years as running on a treadmill does miles wasn't a flashy trade or signing. No big dollars were thrown at Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, C.J. Wilson or Yu Darvish.

Another regime change proved to be the headline of the winter: president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's departure, the frustrating search for his replacement, and the eventual hiring of Dan Duquette.

The Orioles' largest moves were the subtraction of top starter Jeremy Guthrie, the additions of two imports from the Far East (Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada) and the signing of utility man Wilson Betemit.

As Baltimore opens the 20th anniversary season of Camden Yards today against Minnesota, there's one part of the ballpark where all eyes should be focused, one area which will determine if the Groundhog Day-like carousel of losing will continue.

The mound.

The onus for success has been placed on the pitchers who were already in place, the likes of Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, and Zach Britton.

The pitchers that were supposed to carry the club out of the doldrums and back to winning by now are still being viewed as the key to the club's future. Orioles manager Buck Showalter expressed that the 20-somethings' experiences of the past couple of years, both positive and negative, are going to help them.

"There's sometimes one or two years where there's a lot of doubt in some people's minds about whether they're going to really get it," Showalter said. "All of that period is behind them. They've gone through those growing pains and they haven't cheated the process, so we've got a lot of guys that if they're going to bite, they're going to bite this year because it's just that stage, from my experience anyway."

And there couldn't be more uncertainty surrounding that group.

Opening Day starter Arrieta is coming off surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing elbow. Matusz earned a spot in the rotation after posting the highest ERA ever for a pitcher who made at least 10 starts in a season. Hunter had a so-so 2011 slowed by an early groin injury but he lost 15-20 pounds over the winter. Britton starts the season on the disabled list with an ailing left shoulder, although Showalter indicated Thursday the lefty isn't far away from a return.

The closest to sure-things in the rotation are Jason Hammel, the right-hander acquired for Guthrie, and Chen. Hammel owns a career 4.99 ERA and in Chen's case, it's difficult to predict how the Taiwanese left-hander will transition to the major leagues.

That should cover much of the bad news.

The good news? Almost every member of the starting staff was at one time considered a top prospect.

Matusz is a former first-rounder who was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball for the last two months of the 2010 season. Arrieta was one of the Orioles' best last year, leading the team in wins before shutting it down to have surgery.

Britton created Rookie of the Year buzz over the first two months of 2011, and Hunter is two years removed from a 13-4 campaign with AL champion Texas.

Arrieta said now those pitchers have to challenge each other to be better, to make their highs the norm, knowing a major league-worst 4.89 team ERA isn't close to good enough.

"No question about it," Arrieta said. "That's something that Tommy and I talk about all the time, that we want to win. We want to get to the playoffs and we know what it takes to get there. So just being able to go out there every day and put our team in a position to win the ballgame is what we're going to have to do. We prepared for that and we're ready."

Arrieta said that in order for that to happen, every starter has to take a more assertive approach.

"I think we're all capable of doing that, being the aggressor, keeping the hitters on their toes, knowing that we're going to attack them," he said. "I think what happened last year is we kind of lulled them to sleep by falling behind in the count.

"Just keeping the count in our favor and continuing to pound the zone with all of our pitches no matter what we're going to throw, if we throw quality strikes with each one of our pitches, we're going to be successful."

But with the departure of Guthrie, Colorado's Opening Day starter, Hammel is the most proven pitcher on the staff and he has never won more than 10 games or posted an ERA under 4.00.

There is more depth in the organization than in years past. Wada is down in Sarasota, Fla., building up strength and waiting his turn. Chris Tillman is at Class AAA Norfolk, armed with an improved fastball and fresh off a solid spring. Dana Eveland, Armando Galarraga, Brad Bergesen and Jason Berken are other experienced options in the organization, and round out the Tides' rotation.

"So it's a little bit more of an unknown," catcher Matt Wieters said. "But at the same time, all these guys have great stuff and have the ability, and we've seen it in flashes."

However, the Orioles are still waiting for consistency on the mound.

As Showalter said, the time for the team's pitching to succeed is now and he was proud to see how the returning members of the rotation responded to a rough 2011 during the winter to earn their way back onto the Opening Day roster.

"I'm sure Brian Matusz, maybe at the time he left here last year, he was wondering what next April was going to bring for him. But he did what it took for him to control that," Showalter said. "That's what these guys have got to realize. They control it. They really do, by the way they perform and go about it.

"I'm proud of the way Jake and Matusz and Tommy Hunter did a great job in the offseason. I can go right on, but to see them get rewarded for that, that's satisfying for us."