In yesterday's edition of Future Shock, Kevin Goldstein includes Jake Arrieta, and makes a very interesting comment regarding the future of the Orioles pitching staff:
Arrieta was certainly dealing at Double-A, striking out 70 over 59 innings and limiting the Eastern League to a .208 batting average, but it was still surprising to see him bumped up to Triple-A. Not that he didn't deserve it—he did pitch six two-hit innings in his Norfolk debut—but it's surprising in what the move might say about his timetable. The Orioles have already looked at a lot of young arms this year at the big-league level, but they've stayed away from the premium guys like Chris Tillman. Now that he's joined in Triple-A by Arrieta, one wonders if they're simply lining up all of the pieces for a September look and a permanent installation in April 2010 as starters.A few weeks back, I disputed a Peter Schmuck notion that the Orioles window for competition would open in 2011 (sorry, can't find a link to the post on Schmuck's blog); I've argued that the pieces were in place for arrival by 2010, and that while a 2010 playoff push is still unlikely, talent has a way of achieving results (just ask the Rays). With the obvious caveat about counting our pitching chickens before they're hatched, let's take a look at the 2010 Orioles.
CA: Matt Wieters (club control)
2B: Brian Roberts (under contract)
SS: Cesar Izturis (under contract)
LF: Nolan Reimold (club control)
CF: Adam Jones (club control/arbitration eligible)
RF: Nick Markakis (under contract)
DH: Luke Scott (arbitration eligible)
Aubrey Huff is slated to be a free agent at the end of year, and Melvin Mora has a club option for 2010 (Cot's Baseball Contracts does not give an amount, but I can't see it being less than this year's $9 million salary). Thus, the Orioles need to fill their infield corners for 2010.
Potential free agents that might be worth pursuing: Aubrey Huff, Carlos Delgado, Nick Johnson, Adam LaRoche, Adrian Beltre, Melvin Mora
While the merits of those players would certainly be worth discussing, I'm not sure that MacPhail will choose an expensive fix. At this point, I would love to know the organization's plans for Brandon Snyder. Could his breakout season push him into the lineup next year? Given that both Wieters and Reimold were advanced on a fairly conservative timetable, I can't imagine that, at the earliest, we'd see him much before June. An ideal fix would be a third baseman capable of posting an OBP high enough to merit batting second in the lineup, but isn't that player on every team's wish list? Resigning Huff might be a viable option for first base, especially since he won't cost a draft pick.
The Orioles have six pitchers likely to garner most of the remaining 2009 starts: Guthrie, Uehara, Bergesen, Hill, Berken and Hernandez.
Jeremy Guthrie (arbitration eligible) - Guthrie has pitched similarly to last year in terms of strikeouts and walks, but his BAbip has ticked up, rising from .260 to a more sustainable .292. The main drivers of his higher ERA, however, have been fewer groundballs (0.75 GB/FB career; 0.64 in 2009) and an increased home run rate (8.9% HR/FB career, 12.0% in 2009) . Fewer ground balls + more home runs per fly ball = higher ERA. Assuming those rates regress toward Guthrie's established performance level, he still looks capable of being a reliable back end starter, even though he's likely to post higher ERAs than the past two seasons.
Koji Uehara (under contract) - Uehara as done exactly what the Orioles expected him to do: limit walks, strike out a reasonable number of batters, and post a league average ERA.
Brad Bergesen (club control) - Bergesen has been solid thus far, though a very low strikeout rate (4.2 per nine) is worrying. He never struck out lots of batters in the minors, and he got good results there, too, but 4.2 is probably too low for him to have long-term success in the Majors.
Rich Hill (arbitration eligible) - Hill has mixed three solid starts with three bad starts, and he really struggled in his last two outings (combined 4.2 IP, 7 walks, 7 ER); I suspect he will need to turn it around quickly lest he move to the bullpen. He's the type of arm that deserves every opportunity to straighten out his control issues, but when can't throw strikes, he really can't throw strikes. My optimism that this reclamation project will work out is waning quickly.
Jason Berken (club control) - Like Hill, Berken's first two starts went swimmingly, and then not so much. He's walked nine and struck out eight, hardly a ratio that will lead to positive long-term results. He's probably destined for swingman duty if he can stick with the club.
David Hernandez (club control) - Though his debut was mediocre, he continues to post very good numbers in the minor leagues. At some point, he's likely to return to Baltimore to fill in for either injury or ineffectiveness, so he will definitely get another shot to prove himself.
Based on their current seasons and the outlook for the rest of the year, Guthrie, Uehara, Bergesen, and Hernandez are, in my estimation, very likely to warrant consideration for the Opening Day 2010 rotation, albeit all as back end quality pitchers. Who else could be in the mix? Of those currently in Norfolk, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Troy Patton have been healthy and productive this season, and each could have better stuff than anyone else listed above. With Brian Matusz figuring to join the mix as well, the Orioles are looking at a potential surplus of viable rotation candidates. Assuming that Tillman, Arrieta and Matusz all figure into the 2010 plans, that's a welcome problem to have, if for no other reason than managing workloads.
Importantly, that depth brings up an interesting conundrum for MacPhail: rather than deal with an offensive black hole from the left side of the infield or sign an expensive free agent, should the Orioles trade a pitcher for a shortstop or third baseman? I don't know very much about prospects in other organizations, but what would it take to pry Brandon Wood from the Angels?
Asking the 2010 Orioles to contend would obviously be a tall order, but the offense looks to have the makings of a very good one, especially if the Orioles fill the holes at first and third wisely. As for the pitching, the impact arms are getting very close. Will we see the first wave this September, as Goldstein speculates? That remains to be seen, but it is clear that given the progress made in the first two months of 2009, Orioles fans won't have to wait much longer for all that mound talent to appear. The window opens in 2010, even if it's just barely cracked.