GROWING ARMS

The Baltimore Sun

It is the commodity desired above all others by those who run baseball teams. But even the teams that possess it know that a ligament pull here or a nagging blister there could send them right back to the desperate hunt.

The importance of good pitching can't be overstated. Inspect the top 10 team ERAs from last season and you will find seven of the eight teams that made the playoffs.

But examine those teams more closely and it's nearly impossible to identify a repeatable formula for building an excellent pitching staff. Worse still, success is fleeting. Only five of the 10 ERA leaders made the same list in 2007. Only four from the 2007 list ranked so high in 2006.

"In this market," Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says, "I'm not sure you have the luxury of saying there's a prototypical way to build a pitching staff."

These are the realities faced by the Orioles as they attempt to build a staff nearly from scratch (actually, from a cast of 37 loaded with no-names, retreads and rookies).

Going for them, the Orioles have one of the most acclaimed collections of minor league pitching prospects in the sport. Those arms will throw to the best catching prospect in the game, Matt Wieters, and will be backed by a fleet young outfield.

Going against the Orioles are the high attrition rate among young pitchers and the paucity of top-shelf arms on the major league club.

The future looks promising but terribly uncertain.

Teams such as the Indians, Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels have managed to build excellent staffs in recent years through a combination of prospect development and opportunistic trades and signings. That's the approach the Orioles hope to follow.

"In growing your staff, really most of it has to come from within," club president Andy MacPhail says. "You can go out and get pieces or whatever and then you can make that big strike when you have that one piece remaining, but the nucleus, to me, has to come from within."

Every team wants an ace at the top of the rotation who can be counted on for 200 dominant innings. But the reality, general managers say, is that only eight or 10 of those guys exist.

"What are you going to do, concede that you can't build a championship-quality club without one?" Shapiro says.

The most obvious way to improve a pitching staff is to sign or trade for an established star. The Yankees did it this winter, spending $243 million to lock up CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But pitching is so expensive on the open market that such deals are rarely an option for most clubs, including the Orioles. Even if mid-market clubs can afford these salaries, they can't afford the risk that an expensive pitcher might get hurt early in the contract and leave his team paying $20 million a year for no production.

"We try to never go into the major league market needing a core player," Shapiro says. "The risk in those types of deals is just too great."

Given that reality, most clubs try to develop their best starters in-house. Homegrown starters formed the Orioles' bedrock in the 1960s and 1970s and were also the core of baseball's last pitching dynasty, the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s. Both clubs garnished their own products with veterans from other teams, but success began on the farm.

"Clearly, in our circumstance, the main source of your pitching talent going forward is going to have to come through our system," MacPhail says. "We have to pay particular attention to and make sure that we are drafting enough quality pitching."

The Orioles are on the right track, prospect evaluators say. Starters Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta all rank among the top 100 prospects in the game, according to Keith Law of ESPN and Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. Though previous top prospects such as Jimmy Haynes and Hayden Penn have failed to come through, Law and Goldstein say they can't imagine the Orioles getting so little from their current crop.

"Their pitching talent ranks with anyone in the minors," Goldstein says. "I'd be floored if they got nothing out of this group."

Law and Goldstein say they can envision the trio forming the core of a good rotation by 2012.

If that happened, the Orioles could add the last piece or two with a signing or trade. But as they and many other clubs have learned, counting on every minor league pitcher to develop smoothly is foolish.

"You can never sit back and bank on a guy in A-ball to be in your rotation for X number of years," Rays general manager Andrew Friedman says.

Quantity is as important as quality, general managers and analysts agree. Even teams with the best-laid plans and the hottest prospects face injuries or the reality that some young pitchers never hone their control or sharpen their off-speed pitches.

"Having more pitchers is probably more integral than a lot of people would guess at a quick glance," Shapiro says. "Pitchers just get hurt a lot. There is a lot of attrition."

Shapiro certainly knows the vagaries of the search for pitching. His Indians went from third in the major leagues in ERA in 2005 to 11th in 2006 to fifth in 2007 to 20th last year. In that span, the Indians developed an ace in Sabathia and lost him to free agency, developed another top arm in Fausto Carmona and watched him fall apart a year later and saw a third pitcher, Cliff Lee, go from a 6.29 ERA in 2007 to the Cy Young Award last year. Who could plan for that sort of chaos?

"I'll put it this way," Shapiro says. "I never feel at ease about pitching."

Quantity is especially important for teams trying to build through the farm system. Three years ago, the Rays were in a spot similar to where the Orioles are now. They had few successful pitchers in the major leagues but a bevy of talented minor leaguers.

"Depth is something we focused on a lot in terms of having as many pitching prospects as we could, because the rate of attrition is so much higher than it is with positional prospects," Friedman says. "The one thing I do know is that I don't know who my starters will be in 2012. That's why it's important to have so many talented guys in the system."

When the Rays began to believe that 2008 might be a good year, they surveyed their collection of prospects and decided the talent was heavy on offense. So they traded a gifted but erratically behaving outfielder, Delmon Young, for a major-league-ready arm in Matt Garza. The Rays hadn't made a lot of trades or free-agent signings to augment their pitching, but with one surgical strike, they pushed their rotation from promising to outstanding.

Tampa Bay also focused on an overlooked component of pitching excellence: defense.

"Our two biggest goals in the '08 offseason were to improve our team defense and to improve our pitching," Friedman says. "We were pretty bad in '07 on both fronts, but there was quite a bit of overlap. The pitching staff wasn't as bad as the numbers looked because the defense wasn't so good. So the goals really dovetailed."

The Rays moved B.J. Upton to the outfield, acquired Jason Bartlett to play shortstop, shifted Akinori Iwamura to second base and installed Evan Longoria, a Gold Glove-caliber defender, at third.

"The Rays certainly got more value out of their existing pitching, because defense and pitching are inextricably linked," Law says.

The last common factor linking most good pitching staffs is an effective bullpen. Closers get most of the attention, but a good relief corps usually goes four or five deep in pitchers who can thrive in certain situations. Reliever performance is so unpredictable, however, that few general managers know what their bullpens will look like two or three years down the road.

"If there's a way to be certain about it, I'm clearly not good enough to know what it is," Shapiro says. "It's all about giving yourself alternatives and having flexibility."

The Orioles tried to purchase bullpen security two years ago by handing multiyear contracts to Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford and Danys Baez. It didn't work.

"Reliever performance is just too volatile," Law says.

Again, quantity is as important as quality. The general managers who consistently build good bullpens are always on the lookout for extra arms. Failed starters from the farm system, veterans who are amenable to one-year-deals, trade throw-ins, guys with funky deliveries or unusual abilities to induce ground balls - all are possible components.

The Rays showed this last year, when they built an effective 'pen out of an established middle reliever in Dan Wheeler, a left-handed specialist in Trever Miller, a failed starter in J.P. Howell and a great arm who had never been terribly effective in Grant Balfour.

"It will always be very fluid," Friedman says of the Rays' bullpen picture. "One thing that's important to us is to have different looks in the bullpen - right-handed and left-handed, changeup guys, guys with good breaking balls. And it's a place for some young starters to get their feet wet."

The moral of that story for the Orioles? With their young starters probably several years away, we have no idea what the bullpen will look like on their next good pitching staff.

Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

KEY DATES

Saturday: Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Sunday: First workout for pitchers and catchers

Wednesday: Position players report

to Fort Lauderdale

Next Thursday: First full-team workout

Feb. 25: First Grapefruit League game,

vs. Mets at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, 1:05 p.m.

April 3: Exhibition, Orioles vs. Nationals in Norfolk, Va., 3:30 p.m.

April 4: FanFest at Camden Yards, 10:30 a.m.; exhibition, Orioles vs. Nationals at Nationals Park, 6:05 p.m.

April 6: Opening Day, Yankees at Orioles, 4:05 p.m.

UPCOMING

Tomorrow: A question-and-answer session with Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who discusses his relationship with owner Peter Angelos, second baseman Brian Roberts' long-term status, the progress of top prospect Matt Wieters, and other issues.

Saturday: 2009's major national story lines.

Sunday: 10 questions for the Orioles and a roster analysis.

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