Arms Race Will Intensify During Sarasota Spring
By Matt Palmer
Dan Duquette didn't break up the cavalry, but he put its members on notice.
A year ago, starting pitchers Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen were considered the future of the Orioles.
|Buck Showalter, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton
When each man reports to spring training Feb. 19 at the Orioles' Sarasota, Fla., complex, they will fight to prove that's still the case.
"I'm preparing myself to start and building up the arm strength for that," Bergesen said. "I really hope they haven't given up on me on that part. I believe in myself and I just want that chance again. I know what a big year it is for me. I'm looking forward to the competition."
There will be a friendly rivalry for all those former linchpin pitchers who were disappointing, injured or poorly conditioned in 2011. Some were all three, and the Birds' starting rotation lasted an average of five innings each game and had a league-worst ERA of 5.39. If the Orioles are going to emerge from the cellar of the American League East, it will likely be because the team's pitching finally turned a corner.
"We've got some options as far as the rotation goes," pitching coach Rick Adair said. "It's fun from that standpoint."
Duquette, the club's executive vice president of baseball operations, succeeded Andy MacPhail in November and went about finding pitchers to compete for the starting rotation, signing Japan's Tsuyoshi Wada, Korea's Wei-Yin Chen and veteran Dana Eveland. Before he departed, MacPhail traded for Tommy Hunter, a former Rangers starter. Alfredo Simon, who split time between the bullpen and the rotation in 2011, is also in the mix.
"I think I'd rather be a starter," Simon said. "We'll see what happens this year."
As many as 12 pitchers could vie for the rotation's five spots.
"There's opportunity to pitch here," Duquette said. "We can weed that out in spring training. We need to find dependable starting pitchers. We have more depth to that position this year. It'll be up to them to perform and show they're dependable to the team."
Jeremy Guthrie, the Opening Day starter a year ago, was sent to Colorado in exchange for right-handers Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. Guthrie's heir apparent, Brian Matusz, failed spectacularly in 2011, going 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA. Matusz spent large chunks of time in Triple-A Norfolk and never appeared to recover mentally or physically from an oblique injury during spring training.
It was clear Matusz suffered from poor conditioning and bruised confidence. The former first-round pick is keenly aware of Duquette's offseason moves and said he wanted to reassert his place in Baltimore, where he says he's happy.
"It should allow for a lot of competition, which is what we need," Matusz said. "That's what it's all about in spring training."
Matusz will need to perform well to erase the doubts of some who think he might be damaged goods. Matusz's fastball dropped into the upper 80s a year ago and the loss of velocity was shocking. He said he knew that needed to change.
"For me, it's establishing the fastball," Matusz said. "That's the base pitch for me -- being able to locate in and out. Once I have a good feel for the fastball, all of the other pitches come off of that."
Eveland will have an opportunity to start in Baltimore after being acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the offseason. Eveland split time between the Dodgers and the club's Triple-A team last season. He also could wind up in the bullpen if he's not up to the starting challenge.
"I would prefer to start," Eveland said. "I would prefer to be in the big leagues and do whatever I can do to help a team win, rather than sit in the minor leagues. I've done that too many times, and I'm done with that."
Britton will have a far better chance than he did last year to not only make the Orioles' roster, but also be a regular member of the rotation. Britton took Matusz's place on the roster, shined in April by setting a club rookie record for wins and then finished 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA.
Britton will arrive in Sarasota humble, but ready to seize an opportunity to become one of the team's best pitchers.
"We brought in a lot of starting pitchers and we knew that was going to happen," Britton said. "We knew you were going to have to fight for your job again, but it's a little different for me this year. I've taken some steps."
Britton out-pitched more experienced arms in spring training a year ago. That competition will fuel him in February and March.
"You have to think that way or you're going to get lost in a hurry, especially with the guys that we brought in," Britton said. "I know I've got stuff to work on. That's one thing I'm kind of kicking myself.
"Whereas last year, I didn't work on anything I needed to work on. I went up there just putting up results and made the team. This year, results matter, but it's beneficial for me and the team if I go in there and work on the things I need to work on."
Tillman and Bergesen could be odd men out, relegated to the minor leagues or the bullpen because of their inconsistencies. They'll need to earn manager Buck Showalter's trust during spring training.
Hunter said he planned to make the most of his opportunity.
"I have a new opportunity and a new chance to prove myself," Hunter said. "It's a tough league, tough division. I'm up for a challenge. It's a bunch of guys going after one job. At the end of the day, we're all friends rooting each other on because we have a common goal -- that's to bring a championship here."
Issue 170: February 2012