Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Birdland Bulletin: Arming Up

On Monday night as I sat in a room full of people watching The Bachelor there were many questions running through my mind. Others in the room were wondering would Sean pick Catherine or Desiree or what happens if Chris Harrison sleeps with one of the girls?  

I on the other hand, had drifted into Birdland, and had a different line of questioning.  Who will be the Orioles 5th starter or who will be our middle relievers? How much will Matusz thrive in a full season in the pen? You know, important things…

Matt Wieters hit a comebacker; C.C. Sabathia fielded it, and tossed the ball to Baltimore’s Forgotten Son Mark Teixeria for the final out of the ALDS.  The game was over, and an improbable playoff run that a fan base had been starving for was over as well.

 At first it felt like a punch in the gut that made breathing very difficult, but as the air returned to my lungs it became pretty clear that the feeling of devastation, anguish, and utter despair was 1,000,000 times better than the past 15 seasons of losing, losing, and a side order of more losing.

The five game series with the hated New York Yankees was a nut-cutting and nail-biting rollercoaster.  Every game was close; we were all collectively hanging on every pitch; every game came down to a play here a play there.  At the end of the day the plays did not fall our way enough times and the Yankees escaped to the ALCS.  The O’s took the vaunted Yankees to the brink while only hitting .190 over those 5 games.  If you had just looked at the O’s hitting stats from the series, you would have figured they were blown out each game.  But the pitching was spectacular, top to bottom, and they kept the Orioles in every game of that series.  It didn’t matter whether it was the starting pitchers going 6+ innings and keeping the game close, or the trusty bullpen taking over and locking down hitters who made more per game than our relievers made in a month.

Dan “The Duke” Duquette has done a great job of maintaining continuity with our pitching staff as well as adding a few arms over the offseason.  No major additions were made to the Orioles pitching staff, but for the first time in a long time there are a lot of options for Buck Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair to tinker with. 

Like a tattoo artist inking a sleeve on a group of body builders, there are a lot of arms to cover.  So, Drink your coffee, grab your smartphone, head to your favorite stall, and settle in because I’m about to break down our staff with more bite than Miguel Gonzalez’s splitter.

Arming Up Part 1: The Starting Rotation

When pitchers and catchers reported last year the Orioles’ rotation had more mediocre options than McDonald’s array of chicken sandwiches.  But the starting rotation used public perception as motivation and became a steadying force for last year’s team.  This season the rotation is much more clear and expectations are understandably high.

Ace: Jason Hammel  

When the Orioles acquired Jason Hammel last year, it made as much noise as a conversation at a Bruce Springsteen concert.  No one expected him to make the rotation, let alone emerge as our staff ace.  Despite linger knee injuries, Hammel thrived away from Coors Field.  In the thicker and more humid East Coast air, Hammel’s two seamer was able to run in on right hand hitters and away from lefties.  Hammel put the rotation on his back, when healthy, and kept opposing hitters to a .234 average and amassed a 3.43 ERA. His 113 strikeouts in 118 innings pitched was not too shabby either.  With his knee issues apparently resolved a healthy season out of Hammel Time will be essential for another October run. 

Number 2: Wei-Yin Chen

Remember when the O’s lost game 1 at home, and we realized Game 2 was on the left shoulder of We-Yin Chen?  Remember that “well this was a fun run, but now it’s over” feeling Birdland felt?  Then do you remember when Sweet Chen Music shoved it up right up the Bronx Bombers’ asses and made us all believe in Orioles Magic one more time? It was a peaks and valleys kind of rookie season for Chenner, who came out like gangbusters throwing quality starts in his first 7 professional starts, to a tune of a 4-1 record.  The rest of his rookie campaign was all over the place, a win here, a loss there, a lock down performance vs. Tampa quickly followed by a punishing beatdown by the Royals.  Chen finished the regular season at 12-11 with a 4.02 ERA (let’s trim that down, please) and a WHIP of 1.26.  What’s truly great about Chen is his impeccable control, he can command all of his pitches (57 BB’s in 192.2 innings).  While a sophomore slump is a legitimate possibility, Chen looks to build off a solid rookie season and shoulder more of a load as he gets more acclimated to the American style of rest and recovery. (Don’t get me started on pitching maintenance of the Orient…).  We should expect the league to catch up to Chen, but if he can make adjustments once the league adjusts to him, then we will really know what we’ve got in Wei-Yin Chen.

Number 3: Miguel Gonzalez

On a team full of great stories, was there any more unbelievable and simply awesome than Miguel Gonzalez?  Working his way back from Tommy John surgery in the Mexican Leagues, he was spotted by an Orioles bird-dog scout.  I absolutely loved watching Miggy’s starts because of his cool and calm demeanor on the mound.  After already enduring the dark uncertainty of being a free agent pitcher labeled with arm problems, nothing seemed to bother Miggy. The dude was unflappable last year, and you can certainly expect that to continue.  In his 18 starts, Gonzalez (who was called up as a reliever) baffled hitters with his sneaky fastball and tumbling splitter.  Gonzalez was 9-4 a year ago with a 3.25 ERA, and his clean mechanics make me believe that his arm injuries are behind him.  Miggy diced up the Yankees in Game 3 over 7 innings, only too see the win slip through the team’s grasp thanks to that bald alien looking jerk-off who pinch hit for that overpaid primadonna. Miggy is still a relative unknown nationally, but if his poise is any indication, America will be well aware of our guy this summer.

Number 4: Chris Tillman

I’m going to toot my own horn for a minute here.  When everyone was bailing on Tillman, calling him a bust, and collectively calling for his head, I stood by my man.  Tillman’s biggest detriment was his control, and it was pretty obvious that he was just a youngster trying to do too much out there and it snowballed on him. First his control went, then he lost his confidence.  Too make matters worse, Tilly over-pitched himself in 2011 and his velocity dipped.  I remember hearing last year during Spring Training, that not only had Tillman’s velocity gotten back to where it once was (94-95), but it had jumped to 96-97 at times.  I began salivating thinking of him pairing that power fastball with his knee-buckling curveball.  All we needed was Tilly to get his pitches under control and the 23 year old could prove that he belonged.  And damnit did he ever! Now 24 and full of confidence and swagger, Tillman appears ready to lock down a rotation spot and build off last year’s impressive 9-3 record…and a ho hum 2.93 ERA.  It appears Tillman has found himself as a professional pitcher, and his potential for this season and seasons to come is as sky high as Lindsey Lohan’s legal bills. 

 Number 5: ?????????

Here is where it gets interesting.  There are more questions here than Oscar Pistorius’s side of the story. 

If this were a promo for The BUCKchelor Chris Harrison would emerge from the dugout behind a cloud of dry ice and announce, “Seven pitchers. One Spot in the Rotation.”

Here are your candidates listed in order of likelihood of getting the 5th and final spot.
1) Jair Jurrjens
2) Zach Britton
3) Jake Arrieta
4) Brian Matusz
5) Tommy Hunter
6) Dylan Bundy
7) Steve Johnson

If Jair Jurrjens's balky knee passes the Orioles insanely strict medical analysis he will have the inside track at the 5th starter’s spot.  The O’s organizational medical vetting process if more anal than Sasha Grey, but it does appear that Jurrjens has passed through. 

He signed a minor-league deal last week, and will need to earn his spot on the 40-man roster, let alone the rotation.  When Jurrjens injured his knee his mechanics faltered because he was compensating for the pain he felt and the overall weakness in his knee.  With his knee seemingly healthy, it will be extremely important for him to iron out his mechanical flaws during the Spring and get back to his 2011 form when he went 13-6 with an ERA of 2.96 for the Braves.  Personally I believe in Jair, I’ve seen what he can do when healthy, and I fully expect him to be our 5th starter.

Zach Britton has shown flashes of dominance, while at times he’s looked more lost than John Goodman at Whole Foods.  The sky is still the limit for Britton and I would love to see him break camp with the Big League team, and he may well in fact bounce in and out of the rotation.  Unfortunately, I think Britton will need an injury from someone in the rotation in order get his shot. Once he gets that opportunity, I hope he never looks back.

I had high hopes for Jake Arrieta, but 3 seasons and 58 starts later, I just don’t see it working for Jake as a starter.  His change-up has not developed enough for it to be an effective pitch, and his lack of command gets him into more jams than he can wiggle out of.  His pitch counts in turn elevate and getting him through 5-6 innings is more of struggle than watching a guy with a bad prostate take a piss.  Much like Matusz and Hunter, I think Arrieta belongs in the pen where he can come in for an inning or two, throw absolute cheddar and get some quick outs for the ball club.

Dylan Bundy will be the ace of the Baltimore Orioles, this is no secret.  Pitchers with his pedigree and repertoire come around as often as Haley’s Comet. 

HOWEVA, he needs some seasoning, and will be better served dicing up some minor leaguers in order to learn how to be more of a pitcher and less of a thrower.  Rick Peterson knows exactly what needs to be done with Dylan Bundy, and another couple of months under Rick’s watchful eye would be the best-case scenario for Young Bundy. Therefore Bundy probably won’t break camp with the Birds, but a mid-summer call up is as certain as the deliciousness of a Twix bar.

What our rotation lacks in big names, it more than makes up for with stuff, moxie, grit, and overall ability.  For once in a long time, I am very excited about the possibilities and the depth of the Starting Rotation.

Arming Up Part 2: The Bullpen

Last season’s Baltimore Orioles were a team full of cast-offs, afterthoughts, and “who the hell is that guy?” No group on the team embodied the team's make up better than the bullpen.  Luis Ayala came to spring training on a minor-league deal, Darren O’Day hadn’t been effective since he was a junior at the University of Florida, and Jim Johnson had never been a closer for a full season.  Down the stretch, one of our most effective relievers was a top draft pick who failed miserably as a starting pitcher. 

The bullpen was the Old Bay that held this crab feast of a season together a year ago.
Any baseball player, coach, or fan worth their salt knows that it doesn’t matter how good your lineup or your starting rotation is, you cannot win unless your bullpen can get you the final nine outs of the game.  The final three innings are known as the “back third” or the “back end” of the ballgame, and the Orioles bullpen was lockdown in the back third of ball games last season.

The numbers speak for themselves:
32-11 overall
29-9 in one run games
16-2 in extra innings games.
2.12 ERA in One run games
3.00 ERA (5th in the MLB)
55 Saves
470 Strikeouts in 545.1
Held opponents to a 2.38 Batting Average

Dan Duquette has done a terrific job this offseason of keeping the core of that bullpen together, and bringing back the key arms. Buck Showalter managed the bullpen perfectly a year ago, and he was so in sync with his relievers that even people with ESP were impressed. 

Here’s what we know about the bullpen, Jim Johnson is back as the closer. Johnson will enter the season with a full year of slamming doors under his belt. JJ led the league with 51 saves, and was able to close out so many games thanks to his 2.49 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.  Hopefully he can shake those gut wrenching appearances in the ALDS and build off of last season’s impressive successes.  

Jim Johnson post door slamming.
Darren O’Day and Pedro Strop will more than likely see time as set up guys in the 7th and 8th innings.  Luis Ayala will also provide late inning relief that even though it was never pretty, he thrived in that role a year ago.  Troy Patton will be relied upon to get the David Ortiz, Josh Hamilton, and other big time Lefty Sluggers out.

Darren O'Day getting nasty.

 So if you’re doing the math, (5 starters plus the 5 relievers mentioned) there are two spots up for grabs to round out the pitching staff. Another left-handed pitcher would be nice, and perhaps a long reliever for those days when our starters struggle. 

I think Brian Matusz is all but a shoe-in to be the other left-handed arm in the pen. When Brian Matusz was drafted 4th overall in the 2008 MLB Draft, he was expected to be the future Ace of the franchise.  As Matusz’s velocity went up and down so did his effectiveness.  While Matusz will get every opportunity to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation, I think everyone knows he can carve out a brilliant career as a reliever.

Buck moved Matusz to the pen late last August and in 18 games (13.1 IP), Matusz gave up 2 earned runs, only 5 hits, and struck out a whopping 19 batters (that’s 12.83 K’s per 9 innings pitched, folks!).  Left-handers batted a measly .175 against Matusz last season, and .114 against him as a reliever. HELLO! Brian Matusz has found his role as a pivotal and dominant reliever, and the sooner we all just accept that, the better we will all be!

The final spot is probably a four-man competition between right handers Steve Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Jake Arrieta, and T.J. McFarland.  This is probably not Arrieta’s spot to win, and there is not much known about T.J. McFarland other than he was a Rule V pickup from the Cubs.  In my humble opinion this really comes down to Steve Johnson and Tommy Hunter.

Local-boy-done-good, Johnson really shined in his role as long reliever a year ago.  He was 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA and compiled 46 K’s in 38.1 innings pitched. While his stuff is not over powering, Johnson controls the tempo and uses pinpoint control to shut down opposing batters.  Johnson is the lightning, while Tommy Hunter is the thunder.

Hunter was atrocious a year ago as a starting pitcher, giving up a then league leading 32 home runs.  Buck mercifully sent him down to the minors to get straightened out, and then was back up as a reliever.  In this new role Hunter could stretch himself out for a few innings as a long reliever or come in for an inning or two just and throw extreme queso.  Hunter was being clocked at 98-99 MPH on his fastball which was a good 3-4 MPH's more than when he was starter.  While the role of long reliever/extra right-hander is not glamorous, it will certainly be a competition to watch for this spring training.  I think ultimately Hunter will get the first crack at it, with Johnson and Arrieta nipping at his heels.

Spring Training games crank up this week, and all of the competitions on the pitching staff will be full bore.  They should be very tightly contested and extremely fun to watch.  At the end of the day, whoever earns a spot on the 25 Man roster may not be in these roles for the entire season.  This in turn is the great element of the 2013 Baltimore Orioles pitching staff.  The staff is deeper than a landfill, and we as a fan base can definitely get behind that!

Check back soon for a look at the Position Players!