Orioles' rotation to have new look in '09
Aiming to cut down on free passes, Baltimore makes changes
BALTIMORE -- It was just an offhand comment, but one spoken with the force of a motivational mantra. Andy MacPhail, the Orioles' president of baseball operations, was asked during the Winter Meetings whether his fan base was ready for a Japanese pitcher, and he responded in the simplest terms available to him at the time.
"I think Baltimore fans are ready for pitchers to get people out -- whether they're Japanese or American," he said.
And while that comment was clear enough, MacPhail may as well have said pitchers "who throw strikes." The Orioles have led the American League in walks each of the past two years, and this winter, they've done something about it. Daniel Cabrera and Garrett Olson are gone, and Koji Uehara and Mark Hendrickson have arrived in their place.
That's not to say the staff has been completely overhauled, but it has shed the two top walk-issuers in the rotation. Cabrera led the AL in walks in 2006 and '07 before finishing second last year, and the Orioles decided they just couldn't wait for him to iron out his control. Olson, by contrast, was dealt to the Cubs for left fielder Felix Pie.
In Uehara and Hendrickson, the Orioles have imported two veterans who have exhibited low walk tendencies in their past. And while Hendrickson's role is still undetermined, Baltimore can be reasonably certain it will pitch better. And if it doesn't, there's a whole flock of intriguing arms scattered through the upper levels of the organization.
The Orioles saw Radhames Liz, Brian Burres, Chris Waters and Steve Trachsel combine for 58 starts last year, and that foursome combined for 157 walks -- or nearly a quarter of the team's total -- in 318 1/3 innings. They also surrendered 52 of Baltimore's 184 home runs, giving the Orioles hope to better fill those rotation slots.
Their replacements are undetermined, but pitching coach Rick Kranitz said during the last weekend of the season that it's his mission to cut down on the walks, even if he has to make wholesale changes.
"You look at the numbers and see we didn't throw the ball over the plate, and that tells you just about everything, especially later in the year," Kranitz said in September. "It's hard enough to get guys out, but then you're putting the hitter in [a better] position.
Baltimore also had high walk ratios out of Adam Loewen and relievers Rocky Cherry, Lance Cormier and Fernando Cabrera, none of whom will be back in '09. Reliever Dennis Sarfate is the lone high-walk holdover, and he pitched most of last season with an injured collarbone that may have exacerbated his naturally wild tendencies.
The challenge, as noted all winter, has been finding people to credibly step in as rotation stopgaps. Guthrie and Uehara are the only surefire rotation members, and Henrickson is expected to be used as a swingman. That means the Orioles must identify two or three starters in Spring Training, a tall task for any organization.
At some point, the offseason search will be rendered moot. Baltimore has several intriguing prospects in the upper levels, perhaps best exemplified by right-handers Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta. The Orioles should also have Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez vying for jobs in the near future, but they don't want them to learn on the job.
And that's not even mentioning last year's top Draft pick, Brian Matusz, who has yet to pitch in a full-season professional league. Matusz will likely start at Class A Frederick, but could move quickly through the organizational ladder.
The others will likely start at Double-A Bowie or Triple-A Norfolk, giving the Orioles a bevy of options if their first wave of starters don't work out. Another group -- perhaps made up of Liz, Burres and longtime prospect Hayden Penn -- will get the first shot to bridge the gap, but with the knowledge that there's depth coming quickly behind them.
Baltimore also has Troy Patton and Matt Albers coming back from shoulder injuries, and it's unclear how big a factor they'll play in the upcoming season. Patton sat out all of 2008 after undergoing corrective surgery, but Albers opted for rehabilitation instead, and manager Dave Trembley will watch them carefully throughout Spring Training.
The Orioles may find two starters from within, but it won't be easy. Veteran reliever Danys Baez has asked to be evaluated as a starter, and so will David Pauley, who was acquired from the Red Sox this month in exchange for Bierd. Non-roster invitee Brad Hennessey has also been mentioned as a sleeper, giving the Orioles plenty of decisions to make.
The challenge for Kranitz and Trembley is quite clear: Sort through the cast of arms during the exhibition season and decide who can best fill in and prop up the rest of the staff. Help is coming from the farm system, but Baltimore has to let those arms finish developing at their own pace and find someone to contribute in the Major Leagues.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.