Rebuilding Birdland from the Mound Up

Posted on March 11, 2009

By Ben O'Brien

Radhames Liz went 6-6 with a 6.72 ERA in 17 starts last year.
(Mitch Stringer/PressBox)
The Orioles' rebuilding process is in full swing in 2009 and if fans haven't seen the light already, it seems to be just over the horizon. There sits a future of promise and pride, a Birdland rebuilt.

Even as the Orioles look toward that future, the past is providing a blueprint for success. When the Birds were the team to beat in past decades, it was always about pitching. From the days when Cuellar, McNally and Palmer notched 20 wins each to the 1983 title-winning trio of Flanagan, Boddicker and McGregor, the O's arms constantly carried the winning load and Charm City reaped the benefits. 

So, as Baltimore looks to turn the page on a decade of heartbreak, the orange and black will do what it has always done -- look to the mound.

Andy MacPhail and Dave Trembley have their work cut out for them, however. They face the recent history of failed arms like Daniel Cabrera, Adam Loewen and even Erik Bedard, all the while struggling to convince a cynical fan base that highly touted prospects are finally going to break through.

As the 2009 season approaches, there is no better time to scrutinize the high volume of young hurlers the Birds have amassed. Take a look at the Now-or-Nevers, the Future Stars and the Up-and-Comers – six pitchers that all have a chance to toe the rubber at Camden Yards in the future. For some, the future is now.

THE NOW-OR-NEVERS

Hayden Penn
Penn, a former top prospect, on May 28, 2005 became the 29th player in Orioles history to make his major league debut before the age of 21. In his first stint with the Birds, Penn went 2-2 with a 6.34 ERA over eight starts. He was sent back to Double-A Bowie two months later to fine-tune his game. He has been fine-tuning ever since.

Penn has struggled with injuries and bad luck over the last three seasons, most recently with elbow surgery in 2007 and two stays on the disabled list last year. He is out of major league options this time around, meaning he will either make the team in 2009 or be exposed to waivers.

The enigmatic 24-year-old right-hander, who is 3-6 with a 9.31 ERA over 14 big league games, will have to prove he can stay healthy while redefining his early pedigree. The best guess is that if Penn is still breathing and can throw strikes (preferably at the same time), he will be on the O's Opening Day roster. Where he goes from there is up to him.

Radhames Liz
Liz so far has been a major letdown and a minor success. Over 26 big league appearances the 25-year-old is 6-8 with a 6.77 ERA, including an erratic 2008 campaign. The Dominican Republic native has shown tons of promise in the minors, however, as he was named the Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2007. Liz went 11-4 with a 3.22 ERA in 25 starts for Double-A Bowie that season before being called up to the majors in late August.

The organization hasn't given up on the righty but would like him to refine his mechanics and get the ball in the strike zone. He will likely be afforded at least one more chance to accomplish that task in Norfolk if he fails this spring, but now is the time for him to cement his spot in the rotation. Look for Liz to garner the No. 5 slot this season and cross your fingers that pitching coach Rick Kranitz can wrangle him in.

THE FUTURE STARS
 
Jake Arrieta
Following a stellar college career, Arrieta received a $1.1 million signing bonus after the Orioles picked him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. He started last season with the Single-A Frederick Keys and was overpowering in his first 10 starts, going 5-0 with a 1.51 ERA. Arrieta followed that up with a successful showing in the Olympics with Team USA.

This spring Arrieta is busy climbing the O's pitching ladder, impressing fans, scouts and players alike. He is ranked as the Birds' fourth-best prospect by Baseball America and is slotted in as a second or third starter in the future.
 
As of March 9, Arrieta has only logged one inning this spring but that inning was a 1-2-3 gem. He will start the season in Bowie but a September call-up is an outside chance. Barring injury or a sharp decline in performance, he should at least be in the mix for a rotation spot next spring.

Brian Matusz
This 6-foot-4 lefty from the University of San Diego went 12-2 with a 1.71 ERA in his final collegiate season, and held opponents to a .211 batting average and 22 walks in 105 innings. He was named to Baseball America's All-Freshman team in 2006 and led his team to a No. 4 national ranking in 2007. The Orioles are banking on early success from Matusz, having signed him to a major league contract, which automatically places him on the 40-man roster.

Baseball America ranked Matusz the 25th best prospect in the game for 2009 and projects him to be another top-of-the-rotation starter. Most insiders expect him to move quickly through the O's system, perhaps beating players drafted a year before him (see Arrieta). After starting in Frederick, look for this kid to improve at light speed and vie for a September call-up. If not, like Arrieta he should be a candidate for next year's rotation.

THE UP-AND-COMERS

Brad Bergesen
Bergesen, a fourth-round draft pick in 2004, was hampered early in his career by injuries and illness. In 2007 he was struck in the head with a ball during batting practice and in 2006 his season was cut short by mononucleosis. Finally healthy for the O's in 2008, he began the year in Single-A Frederick, then made a quick jump to Bowie. Bergesen went 15-6 with a 3.22 ERA and began to pick up steam as an up-and-comer.

The O's are considering Bergesen, the Orioles' Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season, for one of their bottom three rotation spots, mostly because he has forced the club to take notice. As of March 10, Bergesen pitched the most innings of any Oriole in camp and seemingly fared the best. In seven innings he has given up only two runs on two hits, while striking out seven and walking only one. When the offseason began, it was safe to assume that the 23-year-old was barely on the starting rotation radar; now he is squarely in the O's sights.

Chris Tillman
After being dealt to the O's last February as a piece of the Erik Bedard deal, Tillman showed his potential in 2008 for Double-A Bowie. He was second in the Eastern League -- and among all Double-A pitchers -- in strikeouts with 154 while putting up an 11-4 record and a 3.18 ERA, good enough for fifth in the league. His .227 batting average against was second best in Double-A ball.

The 20-year-old righty is billed as a top-of-the-rotation type hurler. He is ranked as the 22nd best prospect in the game coming into '09 by Baseball America, and many expect him to make an appearance in Baltimore this year. Although the O's have been bitten by rushing top prospects before (see Hayden Penn), if Tillman repeats last year's performance in Norfolk he could make an impact in the majors this season. As always, MacPhail and company won't rush guys like Tillman but they also won't hold them back when ready.

Issue 135: March 2009

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