Orioles Need To Pitch The Kids
By Pete Kerzel
So Mark Teixeira wasn't gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree and the Orioles' rotation looks a little thin behind de facto ace Jeremy Guthrie. The signing of 6-foot-9 lefty Mark Hendrickson didn't satisfy fans' cravings for a legitimate starting pitcher and no one is sure yet on Japanese import Koji Uehara.
|Radhames Liz went 6-6 with a 6.72 ERA in 17 starts last year.
Suddenly the departed Daniel Cabrera, who at least took the ball every fifth day for most of his four-plus seasons with the Orioles, doesn't look so bad. Well, at least not as bad as the last fans saw of Steve Trachsel.
Yes, the O's rotation is a mess. Once past right-hander Guthrie, who pitched much better than his middling 10-12 record and 3.63 ERA last year indicated, there is nothing but question marks facing manager Dave Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz.
But if Andy MacPhail's makeover is going to work, if the Orioles are going to build from within and conservatively tread into free agency if and when a player (probably a hitter) is a good financial and roster fit, there's only one way to proceed in constructing a pitching staff for 2009.
Leave it to the kids. After all, isn't that the whole point of a major organizational reconstruction -- the emphasis on stocking the farm system to produce what's needed?
Yes, this theory is a throwback to the vaunted "Oriole Way." Back in the day, the O's groomed every player for a couple of years in the minors at minimum. There were few openings in the era before free agency, and that kept the youngsters in line, since they knew they had to prosper in the minors or their shot at the big leagues would perish.
Times have changed. Free agency has played a cruel trick on any team that's not in a mega-market (or, any team not in New York, Boston, Chicago or the Los Angeles metro area). The playing field isn't level and, well, baseball life isn't fair.
Teams have lost control over their own destinies when Evil Empire-type clubs simply open up a checkbook, knowing whatever they write won't exceed the balance in their accounts. There aren't many ways to counteract that overspending, but one way to combat it is to continue the introspective focus that has helped transform the Orioles' minor league system from a talent-barren laughingstock to an afterthought to an up-the-ladder development model that's on the verge of producing tangible talent capable of helping do more than bridge gaps.
Tired of left-hander Garrett Olson's maddening habit of not trusting his stuff, nibbling at hitters and not being aggressive? So is everyone, but Olson doesn't have much more to prove in the minors, where he's gone 21-17 with a 2.95 ERA in 71 career games.
Olson is not going to learn anything more on the farm. But another season of Kranitz's instruction, some pointers from Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and a better understanding of major league hitters and Olson might finally fulfill his promise. Certainly, he's better than the 9-10 record and 6.65 ERA he produced in 2008. And do you think the Cubs or Padres would be clamoring for Olson in trade talks if they thought he was a 25-year-old washout?
Ditto for Radhames Liz, 25, the enigmatic right-hander who went 6-6 with a 6.72 ERA in 17 starts last year. Liz has yet to turn into the strikeout pitcher the Orioles envisioned when he had a breakout 2007 season at Double-A Bowie, going 11-4 with a 3.22 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 137 innings. Sure, he's raw, but so was Cabrera when the Orioles plunked him from Bowie out of sheer necessity. Right now, Liz's unmined abilities cry out for a chance.
Left-hander Troy Patton, 23, didn't pitch in 2008, opting for surgery to repair a labrum problem. Right-hander Matt Albers, 25, acquired from Houston with Patton in the Miguel Tejada deal, decided on rest to treat a similar malady. If one or both rebound, they could fill spots.
Right-hander Hayden Penn, 24, is running out of chances, but will get another come February in Fort Lauderdale. Right-hander Brad Bergeson, 23, was 16-7 between Double-A and Single-A last year and has fans buzzing. Righty Chris Tillman, part of the haul from Seattle for Erik Bedard, was 11-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 28 starts at Bowie and is drawing trade interest.
Will the learning curve be pretty? No. But O's fans have come to expect that over the course of 11 losing seasons. What MacPhail was tasked with doing was completing a turnaround, and that process comes in stages. One of those phases includes watching painful development, but the payoff comes with mature, polished pitchers.
The focus should remain on developing young pitchers, even if some of that development has to come at the major league level. Granted, this is a lot like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping some will stick -- an odd but time-honored culinary custom for determining whether the pasta is ready. But it's more fun to chart the progress of a young pitcher than to wonder when some over-the-hill veteran will finally break down, hoping you can squeeze another batter, inning or game out of a tired arm.
Issue 133: January 2009