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Revisiting The Cavalry Of Young Orioles Pitchers

June 20, 2013

Remember the cavalry?

Most Orioles fans do. It's become a well-known -- and oft-mocked -- word of choice in Birdland. The phrase traces back to former Birds manager Dave Trembley, who in March 2009 spoke gleefully of the cavalry of young, up-and-coming Orioles pitchers, including Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta. Later, Zach Britton was added to that esteemed list.

At the time, the prevailing hope was that the cavalry was on its way up from the minor leagues, ready to storm into action for the Orioles and bring the team back to respectability. As O's fans know, things didn't quite turn out that way. Every member of the cavalry has had his ups and downs.

But during the Orioles' recently concluded series in Detroit, the cavalry was back together again. Arrieta, Britton and Tillman started the Birds' three games against the Tigers, while Matusz pitched in relief. And it's interesting to see that each of the four members of the cavalry is in a different stage of development -- or non-development.

The biggest success story -- and arguably only success story -- thus far has been Tillman. Although his outing in Detroit was forgettable, Tillman has emerged during the last two years as perhaps the most reliable hurler in the Birds' rotation. He's not a top-of-the-rotation star, but for all intents and purposes he's the Orioles' No. 1 pitcher. During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Tillman has combined to pitch to a 17-5 record with a 3.32 ERA throughout 30 starts, realizing the potential that led the Birds to acquire him from Seattle as part of the 2008 Erik Bedard trade.

Of course, Tillman's emergence didn't happen overnight. His first three seasons in the bigs were so unimpressive -- a 5.58 ERA during his first 36 major league starts -- that many fans were writing him off as a bust even before he turned 24. But in 2012, something clicked for Tillman, whether it was his mechanical work with O's minor league pitching coordinator Rick Peterson or some other adjustment.

Thus far, Tillman is the only member of the cavalry to have had that aha moment. That's not to say it couldn't still happen for the others. The most likely candidate to do so may be Britton. Since his promising rookie campaign in 2011, Britton has been struggling to find a groove, missing time with injuries and finding himself shuttled between the majors and minors with no sustained success.

But if his recent outings are any indication, Britton may be rediscovering his former self. He pitched to a 2.03 ERA during his five most recent starts for Triple-A Norfolk, and he held his own against the Tigers June 18, limiting the powerful lineup to just one run in 5.1 innings. It wasn't a perfect outing by any means, as Britton struggled with his command at times, but he showed signs of returning to the ground-ball throwing, effective lefty who wowed the Birds during spring training of 2011. At 25 years old, Britton can be considered a work in progress.

Then there's Matusz. His contribution to the Detroit series was a grand total of one pitch, but it was a big one -- he retired Prince Fielder, who represented the tying run, in the seventh inning with two runners aboard June 18.

It's hard to say whether Matusz can be considered a success. It's a matter of interpretation. Certainly, he didn't develop, as the Orioles had hoped, as a top-of-the-line ace pitcher. It's even conceivable that Matusz may never start another game in the majors, considering that his two most recent cracks at it -- in 2011 and 2012 -- turned out disastrously.

Still, Matusz has contributed to successful Orioles teams. His emergence as a shutdown reliever during the 2012 season helped the Birds win key games down the stretch and during the postseason. While Matusz hasn't been quite as sharp in relief in 2013, he's still provided value as a rubber-armed lefty fireman. Although he hasn't turned into the pitcher the Orioles expected when they drafted him fourth overall in 2008, it's not as if he's been a bust.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for embattled right-hander Jake Arrieta. It might be time to start throwing around the "bust" word for him. Arrieta has taken a step backward and is the one member of the cavalry who has made the least progress in becoming a quality major league pitcher. His latest stumble -- a 10-hit, five-run outing against the Tigers June 17 -- only pushed him further out of the Orioles' plans.

Arrieta has regressed during each of his four seasons, following up his 4.66 ERA as a rookie in 2010 with marks of 5.05 in 2011, 6.20 in 2012 and now 7.23 during his five appearances in 2013. His confidence seems completely shot, and Arrieta doesn't seem to have any solution for his continued struggles. The oldest member of the cavalry at 27, Arrieta may be nearing the end of his tenure with the Orioles if he doesn't start showing signs of promise.

For one fleeting series, the cavalry rode together -- one a legitimate starting pitcher, one a work in progress, one an unsuccessful starter turned reliever and one who might never figure it out.

Posted June 20, 2013 by Paul Folkemer