From mid-2012 through last season, Brian Matusz had reinvented himself as a successful situational left-handed reliever. But the magnitude of his struggles — particularly with getting left-handed hitters out — since returning from the disabled list last month appeared to have made his days with the Orioles numbered.
Unloading Matusz and the remainder of his $3.9 million salary this season was easier said than done, but the Orioles found a taker Monday night in the Atlanta Braves.
The Orioles sent Matusz, 29, along with their competitive-balance pick (76th overall) in this June's draft to the Braves for a pair of minor league pitchers: right-handed starter Brandon Barker and left-handed reliever Trevor Belicek.
Meanwhile, the Orioles will purchase the contract of left-handed reliever Ashur Tolliver from Double-A Bowie to take Matusz's spot in the bullpen. Tolliver, 28, was 1-1 with a 2.42 ERA in 26 innings with the Baysox. Tolliver allowed 22 hits while recording 25 strikeouts and issuing eight walks. He had held left-handed hitters to a .212 batting average this season.
Less than an hour after the Matusz trade was completed, the Braves announced they had designated him for assignment. Because Matusz has five years of major league service time, he doesn't have to accept an outright assignment to the minor leagues. He could instead become a free agent and sign with another club for the prorated amount of the major league minimum of $507,500. The Braves would have to pay the rest of his salary.
That essentially meant the Braves made the deal to acquire the competitive-balance draft pick and the $838,900 of signing bonus pool value attached to it.
Matusz opened the season on the DL with a back strain, then had a 12.00 ERA over six relief innings after his return. He particularly struggled against left-handers, allowing them a .455 batting average. Ten of the 16 left-handers Matusz faced reached base as he allowed five hits and issued five walks.
Matusz issued more walks (five) against left-handed batters in 16 plate appearances this year than he did all of 2015 (four) in 108 plate appearances.
From 2013 to 2015, Matusz's first three seasons as a full-time reliever, he held left-handed hitters to a .193 batting average. Lefties hit only .186 against him last season.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter hoped he could rebuild Matusz's confidence on May 17 against a lefty-heavy Seattle Mariners lineup. But Matusz let five of the seven lefties he faced reach base, giving up a three-run home run to the first batter of the outing, Kyle Seager, on an 0-2 pitch. That would be Matusz's final appearance as an Oriole.
Matusz hadn't shown any signs of being hurt since his return on April 23. Matusz also had offseason surgery on his nonthrowing shoulder, something he pitched through at the end of last year. He said there was no physical reason for his struggles.
Barker, 23, was 3-2 with a 2.00 ERA in six starts with Double-A Mississippi, allowing 35 hits over 45 innings with 12 walks. Belicek, also 23, was 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 12 relief appearances with Low-A Rome and Mississippi, allowing 22 hits over 28 1/3 innings with 32 strikeouts and just one walk.
The Orioles made another deal Monday, acquiring minor league right-handed starter Franderlyn Romero for two international signing bonus slots. The Venezuela-born Romero was 1-4 with a 2.87 ERA in 47 innings with Low-A Dayton, allowing 46 hits, striking out 42 and walking nine.
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"With today's moves, we have added to the pitching depth of our organization," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "The pitchers we have acquired today are very competitive and have very good instincts. They have excellent control, keep the ball in the ballpark, and consistently keep the ball over the plate. Not only have we stocked the pitching in our farm system, but we also added three potential major leaguers. We'd all like to thank Brian [Matusz] for his contributions to our team, both on the field and in the community."
In recent weeks, Showalter downplayed the need for a situational lefty in his bullpen, saying that some of his right-handed relief arms could hold their own against left-handed hitting. But take away closer Zach Britton and set-up man Darren O'Day, and right-hander Brad Brach is the only reliever (.238) who has held left-handers to an average below .250.
The Orioles also signed left-handed reliever Brian Duensing to a minor league deal Monday. Duensing, who opted out of his minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals earlier this month, had a 3.10 ERA in 20 1/3 relief innings at Triple-A Omaha. He will report to Triple-A Norfolk. Over his major league career, Duensing has held left-handers to a .238 batting average, compared to a .292 average for righties.
Matusz's departure gives the Orioles added bullpen flexibility they haven't had this year. Right-hander Mychal Givens was previously the only reliever with minor league options.
After trading their competitive-balance pick — the only kind of draft pick that can be traded — and forfeiting their first-round pick for signing free-agent pitcher Yovani Gallardo, the Orioles have four picks in the draft's first 91 selections.