Britton put together a solid rookie campaign and Arrieta showed flashes of brilliance in 2011. The other two, however, reminded fans of Hayden Penn and Daniel Cabrera. The struggles of Matusz and Tillman brought up numerous questions regarding the Orioles’ ability to develop pitching prospects.
While the young pitchers had their ups-and-downs, Jeremy Guthrie turned in his normal 200+ innings and the Orioles quietly have developed some quality starting pitching depth. Alfredo Simon emerged as a serviceable backend starter and Tommy Hunter came over in a trade with Texas.
Aside from the starting pitchers mentioned above, five other pitchers made starts for Baltimore in 2011: Brad Bergesen, Jo-Jo Reyes, Rick VandenHurk, Chris Jakubauskas, and Mitch Atkins.
It’s safe to say that Atkins, Jakubauskas and VandenHurk belong in Triple-A and not the majors. Reyes is a middle reliever at best and it now seems highly unlikely that Bergesen returns to his 2009 form.
Assuming Jim Johnson is looked at as a starter and the Orioles don’t sign a free agent starting pitcher (maybe they will, but for the sake of this post we’re going to assume they won’t), that leaves the Birds with eight candidates for five rotation spots in 2012: Arrieta, Britton, Matusz, Tillman, Guthrie, Simon, Hunter, and Johnson. Here’s how I think it all plays out.
As long as Jeremy Guthrie stays in Baltimore, he’s a lock for the rotation. He put up his third straight season with more than 200 innings pitched and his stability is crucial to a rotation with so many young pitchers. There’s not much to debate here unless you really believe Guthrie needs to be traded in order to allow someone else a rotation spot.
While he wasn’t the most consistent pitcher, Zach Britton had the best all around season among O’s starters. He went through a rough stretch of starts in the middle of the season when he gave up 23 runs in three games, but other than that Britton looked sharp throughout the year.
Britton had trouble finding the zone at times, but did a good job of keeping the ball on the ground and in the park with his sinker. His low HR/9 (0.70) is exactly what a pitcher needs to succeed in the AL East. Aside from Chris Tillman, Britton was the lone O’s starter with a HR/9 below 1.00.
Overall, Britton’s 2011 can be considered to be a success and he is all but guaranteed a 2012 rotation spot. He’s the most promising young pitcher in the system.
Jake Arrieta could not have started off the 2011 season any better, going six or more innings in 11 of his first 15 starts. Finally, it looked as if one of the young pitchers was settling in.
But then Arrieta had elbow issues and was skipped twice in the rotation. When he came back, he made six more starts and gave up nine home runs. It was determined that a bone spur in Arrieta’s elbow was giving him problems, and his start on July 31st would be his last of the season.
There were some positives for Arrieta in 2011. His curveball looked sharp throughout the year and his fastball showed its normal velocity. But he relied on his fastball too much which led to a ton of home runs, didn’t show a great feel for pitching, and had trouble finding the strike zone.
The Orioles should give him every opportunity to remain a starter in 2012, and they most likely will, but if the control problems continue a move to the bullpen may be the best option.
I don’t need to tell you: Brian Matusz is a huge question mark. He enjoyed a very nice rookie campaign and entered 2011 as the Orioles’ #2 starter. Then, before the O’s second game of 2011, it was announced Matusz had a back injury and he was scratched from his start.
Losing Matusz was obviously a huge blow. And while it appeared a disaster to lose your #2 starter at the beginning of the season, there was not a single person who could have predicted the struggles Matusz would encounter for the rest of the season. Calling Matusz’s 2011 a struggle may even be an understatement.
On May 16, Matusz made his first rehab start with the Frederick Keys. He followed that outing with a Double-A rehab appearances and a Triple-A appearance in which he struck out 7 in 6 innings. He looked to be back on track and even threw 5.2 innings of one run ball in his first 2011 big league start. Fans don’t even want to think about what happened after that.
Matusz finished the season with a 10.69 ERA, the worst ERA ever for a pitcher with at least 10 starts. He walked 4.35/9IP and allowed home runs at a rate of 3.26/9. He struggled to touch 90 mph in all of his starts.
Aside from all of Matusz’s struggles, at least he seems sure of what needs to be done for him to return to form. According to him, he did not enter 2011 mentally prepared and was not comfortable with some of the changes former pitching coach Mark Connor was trying to make. He believes some of the changes made could be the reason for his diminished velocity. While that may seem silly, Matusz did say he entered spring training with his normal velocity.
Pitchers that lose velocity like Matusz have struggled to return to form. He absolutely was not going to return to form during the 2011 season, so that points us toward thinking about 2012.
He needs to mentally prepare for 2012, train hard during the off-season, add weight and muscle, and re-work some of his mechanics — he does not fully follow through and does not using his legs and lower body enough.
Matusz was once thought of as a special pitcher and someone who can lead a rotation. The basis is there for him to become that pitcher, but now it’s up to him to make the effort and changes necessary to do so. If his velocity is there when 2012 spring training comes a long, Matusz will open the season in the rotation. But that’s a big if.
The good news is he has been on Brady Anderson’s training program for 100 days.
Like Matusz, Chris Tillman is another pitcher who saw his velocity drop in 2011. Tillman opened the season as part of the O’s starting rotation and threw six brilliant innings in his first start. He remained in the rotation until May 27th and then was demoted to Norfolk.
Tillman went on to make 11 starts with Norfolk before returning to the Orioles’ rotation on July 30th, when he made a start against the Yankees. In that game, suddenly, his velocity jumped and his fastball sat in the 91-94 mph range throughout the start. The velocity was there and even in his next start on August 1st, his fastball again sat in the 91-94 mph range.
He’s an interesting case because it’s unclear why his velocity disappeared and why it reappeared. It could have been mechanical changes made by Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin. It also could have been Tillman sacrificing velocity for command. I have the feeling it is a mix of both.
Tillman was both extremely lucky and unlucky in 2011. A fly ball pitcher, he posted a .73 HR/9 after putting up a 1.81 HR/9 in his first two seasons. The lower home run rate was a result of luck because his HR/FB% was a mere 5.4%.
While Tillman was lucky with home runs, he was also extremely unlucky with balls in play. His .348 BABIP elevated his ERA to 5.52, which was well above his FIP and xFIP of 4.00 and 4.83, respectively.
Still just 23, Tillman has time to regain his velocity. He’s seen the majors for the past three years and has yet to figure things out. He will almost certainly get another chance to start for the Orioles at some point next year, but it’s hard to see them handing him a rotation spot out of spring training. He should be considered one of the top candidates for one of the last two rotation spots.
Alfredo Simon spent the first few months of the season in the Dominican Republic due to him being the lead suspect in a murder case. He returned to the majors on July 19th. It’s hard to believe he has thrown 111.2 innings this year.
Even with all of the missed time, Simon’s stuff looks much better than it has in previous years. His breaking ball looks sharp and all of his pitches move.
Despite Simon’s improved command and stuff, I feel his stuff plays better in the bullpen. There’s not a huge difference between Simon and Tommy Hunter as starters, but I’d prefer Simon in the bullpen as a flamethrower, and that’s where I believe he’ll open 2012.
If a starter gets hurt, finally the Orioles will have a reliever who can slide into the rotation and provide quality innings.
As I noted in the Simon writeup, I feel it’s going to come down to Tommy Hunter and Simon for the last rotation. Also noted above, I’d prefer Hunter take the rotation spot because I’d rather have Simon’s arm in the bullpen.
Hunter’s not flashy, but he’s an inning eater who can go deep into games and save the bullpen. He’s my choice for the last rotation spot.
Throughout the entire 2011 season, fans and coaches — even Buck Showalter — have hinted that the Orioles could try Jim Johnson as a starter next season.
Kevin Gregg should not remain the closer and as the Orioles began to use Johnson to save games to end the 2011 season, it seems as if they may also be looking at Johnson as next year’s closer.
While I do believe Johnson has what it takes to become a solid starter in the AL East — good sinker, gets a ton of ground balls, two other above-average pitches — moving him into the rotation would create an enormous hole in the bullpen.
In the end, I do think he remains a reliever.
# # #
My prediction for next year’s opening day rotation:
1. Zach Britton
2. Jeremy Guthrie
3. Jake Arrieta
4. Brian Matusz
5. Tommy Hunter
My guess is Tillman returns to the minors, Simon moves to the bullpen, and Johnson remains the closer.
What’s your prediction for next year’s rotation? Let us know in our Orioles forum >>
Tomorrow we’ll have a similar post looking at next year’s bullpen.