FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz stood stoically behind the group of mounds, his arms folded, his eyes fixed on the future that was now so tantalizingly close.
Brian Matusz snapped off a curveball from one mound and Brad Bergesen threw his sinker from another. Minutes later, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta fired fastballs into outstretched mitts, the popping sound audible on the back fields at the Orioles' spring training complex.
Most members of what scouts consider one of the best pitching prospect groups in all of baseball are here at Fort Lauderdale Stadium this spring, throwing bullpen sessions, getting into the occasional Grapefruit League game and familiarizing themselves with an organization that is counting so heavily on their development.
"I hope they are special. I hope they are even better than what we think," Kranitz said. "But our standards are pretty high for them to begin with."
The elite pitching prospects aren't serious candidates to make the Opening Day roster, but their time is expected to come in the days ahead after more birthdays are celebrated, more on-the-mound experience is gained and already impressive stuff is further refined.
"If you want to be a huge dreamer, you start thinking about those early '70s [Orioles] rotations," said Kevin Goldstein, a national writer for Baseball Prospectus. "Obviously that's hyperbole, but there's definitely a lot of talent. If everything breaks right, you are talking about a 2011 Orioles rotation that could be pretty sick."
The names are mostly familiar by now. Matusz was the fourth overall pick in last year's draft because he possesses three above-average pitches and the poise of a veteran. Tillman, the ultra-talented right-hander acquired in the Erik Bedard deal, hasn't hit his 21st birthday, but he has already proved capable of dominating more experienced hitters with a power fastball and curveball.
"Their pitching ranks with anyone in the business," Goldstein said. "There's no doubt about it. Tillman and Matusz are two guys that I have among the top 25 prospects in baseball. Arrieta is in the top 50. [Brandon] Erbe makes it in the top 100, and there are these guys after them that may not be studs, but they project as back-of-the-rotation inning eaters. And those guys are valuable. They just have a ton of pitching."
Orioles fans, understandably jaded after 11 straight losing seasons, are weary of tying the organization's future to pitchers who could be a couple of years from being ready. They have watched other hyped prospects, such as Mike Paradis and Beau Hale, falter.
Just three springs ago, they imagined Bedard, Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera leading a potentially dominant rotation; now, all three are gone from the organization. Former top pitching prospects Radhames Liz and Hayden Penn are still around, but Liz could be moved to the bullpen and Penn is out of options and could be approaching his final days in the organization unless he pitches well this spring.
Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, understands fans' skepticism but said the Orioles have better quality and quantity of young pitchers than they've had in the past. There will also be the presence of Matt Wieters, baseball's top prospect, who caught most of the Orioles' young pitchers last year in either Single-A or Double-A, to help the group along.
"Attrition attacks pitchers, but the Orioles have enough arms and enough solid prospects where they should be able to make a difference on the big league staff," said Callis, whose publication recently ranked the Orioles' minor league system as the ninth best in baseball, their highest ranking since 1994. "It's not like they just have Tillman and Matusz. You have Brandon Erbe, Jake Arrieta. In a lot of organizations Erbe would jump out more, but in the Orioles' system, he gets lost in the shuffle a little bit. There are not too many arms like his in the minors."
Erbe, a 21-year-old right-hander who went to McDonogh, will be at minor league spring training this month, joined by the rest of the organization's top pitching prospects as they trickle in from major league camp. Club president Andy MacPhail, whose rebuilding plan is tied to the development of the young pitchers, has said all along that the organization won't rush the prospects simply to fill holes at the major league level.
"I think it's important that people don't get so excited that this is going to be the season that we break that [below .500] streak," minor league director David Stockstill said. "It's far more important to think of the future of the Orioles, where we're going to be in 2010, 2011, not our record in '09. You can make moves to get you just a few extra wins, but if it hurts you, five years, three years, down the road, what are you accomplishing?"
Several of the prospects said they had plenty to work on, maturely sidestepping questions about their big league readiness. Double-A Bowie pitching coach Mike Griffin, whose Baysox staff last season included Tillman, Hernandez, Bergesen, Jason Berken and Chorye Spoone at different points, said the group has its priorities straight.
"I think it's the right thing to do, and it gives them more time to be together and to develop," Griffin said. "Like we stressed last year to our starters, we're here to develop you, not to pitch at Bowie or [Triple-A] Norfolk or at the minor league level. We're here to develop you to pitch in Baltimore and help them win a world championship."
The Orioles' top pitching prospects have had plenty of time for bonding this spring, not just with each other, but also with several of the organization's veterans. Last week, Arrieta stood behind Jeremy Guthrie, the team's ace, and watched tape of one of Guthrie's outings last year. Matusz has also bonded with Guthrie - they have neighboring lockers at Guthrie's suggestion - through clubhouse talks and on a trip to the beach.
"I almost don't want to leave this clubhouse," said Matusz, who is rooming with Arrieta this spring. "I'm just trying to live it up here as much as I can. Meeting all the other guys - Arrieta, Bergesen, Tillman - they are all really great guys, which makes it that much better. It's great knowing that I'll be coming up with those guys."
Arrieta said he feels he's "part of something special."
"It's nice that they bring us here and we're all together," he said. "Just to be able to continue building a relationship with these guys, it's going to be great with the things that we're going to be able to do in the future. It gives us all confidence that the front office has that kind of confidence and trust in the young guys."
Matusz, Patton, Bergesen, Tillman, Arrieta and Hernandez pitched in an exhibition win over the Italian World Baseball Classic team last week. In eight shutout innings, they allowed three hits and a walk, leading manager Dave Trembley to say later that the day was "going to be our blueprint of our future."
Tillman summed it up even better when he said: "I'm excited to be part of this. I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time.
The Orioles could be getting a look at their rotation of the future this spring training. Most of their top starting pitching prospects are in Fort Lauderdale, though it could be a couple of years before they are all together in Baltimore. Here's one projected 2011 rotation.
Starter ( Throws) Age Stats last year Jeff Zrebiec's skinny
Brian Matusz (L) 22 12-2, 1.71 ERA (U. San Diego) 2008 first-round pick has poise and three quality pitches.
Chris Tillman (R) 20 11-4, 3.18 (Double-A) Dominant at times last year even as one of the league's youngest guys.
Jake Arrieta (R) 22 6-5, 2.87 (Single-A) Still needs work on secondary pitches, but he's improving fast.
Troy Patton (L) 23 Injured; did not pitch Was one of baseball's top pitching prospects before shoulder surgery.
Brad Bergesen (R) 23 15-6, 3.22 (Double-A) Stuff isn't overpowering, but he throws strikes and gets results.
Best of the rest: Tim Bascom, rhp, 24; Jesse Beal, rhp, 18; Pedro Beato, rhp, 22; Jason Berken, rhp, 25; Zach Britton, lhp, 21; Bobby Bundy, rhp, 19; Tony Butler, lhp, 21; Brandon Erbe, rhp, 21; David Hernandez, rhp, 23; Chorye Spoone, rhp, 23