Are the O's quietly re-working the rotation?

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First off, let me send my congratulations to the Orioles’ NFL counterpart, the Baltimore Ravens, in winning the AFC North yesterday. Many teams probably would have come out flat in that game with the knowledge that they were in the playoffs, but now the Ravens have a first round bye and at least one home game (which might very well come against the Pittsburgh Steelers). I see the Ravens/Steelers rivalry as similar (but further along) to the O’s/Red Sox. The Red Sox would argue that the Yankees are their big rival, and they’re right (whereas traditionally the Cleveland Browns were the Steelers’ big rival). However the Steelers made the Ravens their whipping boys whenever they needed a win and a laugh for quite some time. In sweeping Pittsburgh this year, the Ravens put a stop to that. With the dramatics of last September, perhaps that’s started to happen for the Orioles with the Red Sox as well.

For the past couple of seasons in Birdland we’ve gotten used to the term “cavalry” in Baltimore with regard to the likes of Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tilman, and Brad Bergesen. In the past couple of days I’ve heard the names Joe Saunders and Edwin Jackson being thrown around as guys in whom the Orioles were interested. The Birds have already inked Tsuyoshi Wada, a lefty with a wicked splittah, out of Japan. Assuming that Jeremy Guthrie isn’t traded and they ink either Jackson or or Saunders, that’s three out of five potential starters right there. See where I’m going with this?

My point is that the past couple of seasons has brought some sort of rotation of Guthrie, Matusz, Arrieta, Tilman, Bergesen, among others depending upon injuries. The commonality there is also Andy MacPhail, who’s no longer with the organization. There’s going to be changes whenever there’s a new man at the top of anything, and the direction of the starting rotation may well be one that’s being implemented by Dan Duquette. (I say this assuming that Wada will be a starter; the skinny on pitchers out of the Japanese league is that they don’t have the endurance of major league pitchers, so for all we know he ends up in the pen like Koji Uehara.)

On one hand, I was most certainly on board with growing young pitchers out of the farm system. The idea was that they would all mature at the same rate, and would give the Orioles one heck of a rotation in the future. However as noble of an idea as that was, the fact is that it hasn’t worked out so well thus far. I would say that the likes of Bergesen, Tilman, and Matusz were at their peak in the summer of 2009. Matusz and Tilman continued onto finish the season strong, but Bergy was hit by a comebacker in July of that year. He was then re-injured in December while throwing for a MASN television spot, and hasn’t been the same since. Tilman was injured in 2010, and last year he appeared to have lost his pop. Matusz of course was hurt coming out of spring training last year, and ended up breaking the MLB record for the worst ERA ever for a pitcher with ten starts or more in a season. (On the plus side he broke the record set by Roy Halladay, and we all know how the rest of his career has turned out.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that some of what has happened hasn’t necessarily been these guys’ faults per se. I would also say that perhaps the Orioles’ organization needs to take a long hard look at how injured players are being conditioned and rehabilitated. One guy struggling coming out of an injury is bad luck; two plus is a trend. Were they rushed back too quickly? Were they not worked out properly?

Regardless of any of that, at best the idea of the cavalry hasn’t worked out the way that the Orioles wanted it to work out. Nobody really knows how the rotation and/or the bullpen will shake out at this point. If either Edwin Jackson or Joe Saunders sign with the Orioles, odds are that they wouldn’t be coming to pitch out of the bullpen. For what it’s worth, over his career Saunders is 69-52 with a 4.16 ERA, given up 124 HR’s, 315 BB, and he records 5 K’s per nine innings. Jackson is an even 60-60 with a 4.46 ERA, given up 119 HR’s, 439 BB, and he records 6.7 K’s per nine innings.

For the record, Jackson is also two years younger than Saunders. I don’t think that the Orioles are looking at either pitcher in the long-term, however probably for the next two or three years a least. Incidentally Saunders is a native of nearby Falls Church, VA, so pitching for the Orioles would be akin to a homecoming of sorts. (As a loyal Terp fan I didn’t want to mention that he’s also a Virginia Tech grad, but I suppose I have to!) Both pitchers have also had progressively lower ERA’s as their careers have gone on, which would certainly be a plus if one of them came to the Orioles.

It’s ultimately up to Duquette and Buck Showalter how they want to move forward with the rotation. I’m not suggesting that Jeremy Guthrie will be the only returning starter from 2011; I think that Arrieta and Britton have a good shot as well. This is also a contract year for Guthrie so there’s always a chance that he’s traded at some point, which means that someone else has to step into that role. So perhaps Brian Matusz starts the season in Norfolk, with Tilman and Bergy in the Orioles’ bullpen. If Guthrie’s traded does Matusz get the call? Tough to say at this point; tough to say anything really…it’s only January.

Follow me on Twitter @DomenicVadala

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