Baltimore Orioles

Orioles look for rotation to continue to improve in 2011

Optimistic Orioles fans, a once-dying breed who have resurged since Buck Showalter took over as manager Aug. 2, believe this group of pitchers is different.

They look at the performance and pedigrees of Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and minor leaguer Zach Britton and believe that the hope finally overrides the hype, that the talent isn't just on paper or on scouts' lips this time.

The proof, the optimists will suggest, is in the final two months of the 2010 season, when the Orioles' starting rotation made 36 quality starts in 57 tries under Showalter, posting a 25-17 record and an impressive 3.16 ERA. The entire Orioles pitching staff combined to go 34-23 with a 3.54 ERA after having an American League-worst 5.18 ERA in the 105 contests before Showalter's hiring.

The young rotation looks at those numbers and can't help but feel good about 2011.

"What we have done the last couple months shows the potential that we have. There are going to be rough times; it's not going to be all smooth sailing all the time," said Matusz, the 23-year-old left-hander who was 10-12 with a 4.30 ERA in 32starts. "But just what we have done the last couple months [has shown] what we can do. So it is exciting."

How good can this group be?

"I honestly think the sky is the limit, especially with more experience under our belt," said Arrieta, who finished the season 6-6 with a 4.66 ERA in 18 starts. "It's going to be fun to watch. It's hard to make any type of predictions, but I expect to have a really good season next year as a team."

The pessimists, though, have heard all this before. The starting pitching flavors of the month and/or the season are nearly as entrenched in Baltimore tradition as the Preakness or the rousing "O" during the national anthem.

In the past 10 years, Orioles fans have watched Rodrigo Lopez almost win Rookie of the Year and Josh Towers capture his first four decisions as a starter in near-historic fashion. Left-handers Matt Riley and Adam Loewen were considered by some to be top-10 prospects in all of baseball before injuries derailed their careers.

At 20 in 2005, Hayden Penn was the youngest Oriole to debut this decade. Crafty Australian bonus baby John Stephens twice won the organization's Pitcher of the Year award, and then there was can't-miss fireballer Daniel Cabrera, who had a 100 mph fastball and plunk-the-mascot control.

The major league reality is that an impressive two months or even a solid full season does not guarantee success for any of the Orioles' new crop of young guns.

"It's only good if they use it [to build on]," Showalter said. "If you go into it, 'Well, I have established myself and this is a given, whatever.' I have seen a lot of guys drink that Kool-Aid. One thing I have and will tell them is it's a competitive world."

Today's top pitching prospect could be tomorrow's shell-shocked head case or Tommy John surgery recipient. It's what makes pitching so invaluable and infuriating.

"It is fragile, and it is expensive," said Andy MacPhail, the club's president of baseball operations. "So it is definitely something we are going to have to continue an emphasis on from our own development system."

When MacPhail joined the Orioles in June 2007, the club's starting rotation consisted of Erik Bedard, Cabrera, Steve Trachsel, Guthrie and Brian Burres. The Orioles also had a trio of promising prospects, age 24 or younger, that combined for 17 big league starts that season: Loewen, Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz.

Of those eight pitchers, only Guthrie is still with the Orioles. Only one other, Burres, now with the Pittsburgh Pirates, made a major league start in 2010.

Using that 2007 group as a barometer, MacPhail said he believes "significant strides" have been made with the organization's pitching corps.

"We just needed to place an emphasis on [pitching] within the system, and we are going to have to develop it," MacPhail said. "That is one part of your club, given the realities of our system today, that you have to put a deep emphasis on, developing [pitching] from within."

In the past three years, the Orioles have overhauled their system in regard to pitching. Of the 27 pitchers who appeared in at least one game for the big league club in 2007, only Guthrie, reliever Jim Johnson and minor leaguer Jim Hoey are still in the organization.

Of the 23 who pitched for the Orioles this year, only five were with the organization at the start of the 2007 season.

Matusz, Bergesen, Arrieta, Tillman, David Hernandez and Rick VandenHurk -- all 25 or younger -- combined to make 98 of the team's 162 starts in 2010. With Britton, the 22-year-old lefty who was the organization's 2010 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, expected to compete for a roster spot next spring, the Orioles again will have an exceptionally young rotation.

Guthrie, 31, might end up as its elder statesman, though MacPhail has not dismissed the possibility of acquiring another veteran to take the place of pending free agent Kevin Millwood.

In 2007, Guthrie, a first-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2002, was viewed as an Orioles young gun and potential future mainstay after he was claimed off waivers and posted a 3.70 ERA in 32 games (26 starts). He understands just how important that first full year in the majors can be for an inexperienced starter.

"The full season is really a lot of things. It is both physical and mental, the grind," Guthrie said. "So, having a full year like [his young teammates have had] is just going to give you that much more experience in mental toughness as well as with the physical demands."

Guthrie rebounded from a rough 2009 by setting a career high with 209 1/3 innings pitched in 2010 while going 11-14 with a 3.83ERA. He was buoyed not only by his consistency this season but also by what his rotation mates accomplished.

"I think all of the pitchers really have pitched well this year and have had great stretches, both when they have pitched well and other stretches where they have had to work through some adversity," Guthrie said. "But I think, equally, everyone has thrown the ball exceptionally well and shown tremendous potential."

Perhaps what sets this young group apart from those in the past -- and the primary reason for optimism -- is that they all had rough patches yet finished strong.

Matusz, for instance, allowed 18 runs in five July starts (8.10 ERA) and then just 15 runs in his final 11 games (2.18 ERA).

"For me to bounce back and do what I did the last couple months after really struggling for a while really means a lot more to me than just numbers on paper," Matusz said. "Because I was able to battle through tough times, when things were tough, where I was lost."

Matusz wasn't alone in experiencing bumps, bruises and success in 2010.

Bergesen had to overcome an offseason arm injury incurred while making an Orioles promotional commercial. He was twice demoted to Triple-A Norfolk before posting a 3.94 ERA in the second half (after a 6.40 ERA in the first half).

"The beginning of the year was such a disaster. It was as bad as it possibly could get," Bergesen said. "So I really had to look deep into myself in the mirror and figure out what was going on. I just kept bouncing back and forth. It was a roller-coaster ride. So to be able to persevere and put some starts together to help the team out is huge."

Tillman also was shuttled between Triple-A and the majors. He made 11 starts for the Orioles -- in four he allowed two earned runs or fewer in six or more innings, and in three other outings he didn't last three innings while getting shelled in each.

Arrieta's monthly ERA was 6.20 in June, 5.01 in July, 4.45 in August and 2.60 in September.

It's impossible to tell which way each young pitcher will go in 2011 -- whether they collectively take a step forward or whether some fall back and end up on the scrap heap of hype that has claimed so many young Orioles in the past.

It fortifies MacPhail's mantra of building young arms from within -- and to keep creating them, no matter the good and bad of 2010 or the optimism surrounding the rotation in 2011.

"They all had their ups and downs. Brad had a terrible start and has had a great second half. I think Jake has been OK; he's got to feel pretty good about his inauguration into the major leagues," MacPhail said. "Brian, up and down, but then again, by and large OK. Tillman is an odd duck. He doesn't allow many hits, but he's had a hard time sometimes with his control or keeping the ball in the park.

"To me, you've just got to add as many [young pitchers] to that core as you possibly can."