Starting trio ready to take O's to next level
Bergesen, Matusz, Tillman got feet wet last season
SARASOTA, Fla. -- It's time to turn the corner.
That was the sentiment behind Orioles manager Dave Trembley's first team meeting back on Feb 23. Seated on a bench along one of the back fields at the team's new Spring Training home in Sarasota, Trembley acknowledged that Baltimore's 2010 season will be full of a new kind of expectations.
With a trio of starting pitchers under 25 -- Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman -- who spent 2009 getting their feet wet, along with heralded catcher Matt Wieters, Baltimore is out of what president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail calls Phase 1 and eagerly on track to start Phase 2.
"I think I had the opportunity to manage in the big leagues at the beginning because of my background," said Trembley, who is entering his third full season at the Orioles' helm and owns a career 172-244 Major League record.
"I've been patient. I can teach, develop. Now, it's take player development to team development. God, I'm looking forward to that."
But can the Orioles youth-infused roster -- sprinkled with what figures to be several key veteran acquisitions -- make a case alongside the behemoths of the American League East?
"I don't think there's any doubt we can be competitive," said ace and likely Opening Day starter Kevin Millwood. "It's all going to come down to how we pitch and how we play defense.
"The majority of the young guys are pitchers, so if they come out of the gates doing well, it's going to boost them, it's going to make their confidence go up, and the team's confidence will go up. There's something to be said about your infielders and outfielders having confidence in the guy that's on the mound."
Brought over in an offseason trade with Texas, Millwood is expected to provide a steadying presence atop an Orioles rotation that averaged an American League-worst 5.40 runs per start last season. Combined with a middling relief corps, Baltimore's arms set AL highs in hits (1633), earned runs (817) and home runs (218) in 2009.
To put it mildly, they took their lumps. But, as Trembley points out, last season's 64-98 finish wasn't in vain. It was simply part of the process; one that had been carefully crafted to ensure their young pitchers remain stalwart in baseball's toughest division.
The oldest of the trio, Bergesen was the first to join Baltimore last year, going 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA before a line drive to his left shin ended his season in July. Tillman went 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 65 innings spread over 12 starts, while Matusz flew through his first professional season and was recalled on Aug. 4. A 23-year-old lefty with four quality pitches, Matusz went 5-2 with a 4.63 ERA in 44 innings sprinkled across eight starts.
"If you saw Matusz, you would think Matusz had pitched in the big leagues for 10 years; he didn't blink," Trembley said. "Can say the same thing about Bergesen. For Tillman, for a guy that was 20 years old, I don't think anybody in our shoes could have done what he did. [They're] special guys." Tillman, who was considered a front-runner for the fifth starter spot earlier in camp, could start the season with Triple-A Norfolk in favor of David Hernandez or Jason Berken. Team officials have acknowledged that Tillman's recent outings, combined with the team's 16 straight games to open the season, make Hernandez a more enticing candidate for the Opening Day lineup. Berken could also make the team as a second long man, and in that scenario, Tillman would join the Orioles later in the year.
Trembley does acknowledge that there are certain challenges involved in bringing along a rookie pitching staff in the AL East.
"You better make sure the guys that you have got great makeup, got some guts and can stomach it," Trembley said.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
|6||LF||Felix Pie/Nolan Reimold|
As Wieters points out, all three young arms have had solid spring campaigns, particularly against AL East foes. Bergesen shut out a squad of Yankees regulars over 5 2/3 innings on Thursday, yielding three hits total and allowing just one projected starter -- Derek Jeter -- to hit safely.
Matusz, who tossed 5 1/3 no-hit innings against the defending National League champion Phillies on March 19, struck out four Rays in his four-out Grapefruit League debut. Tillman's March 20 start against the Red Sox drew rave reviews from Boston manager Terry Francona, who called the Orioles' emergence of young arms "unfortunate" for the rest of the division.
The challenge that remains for the exceptional O's trio is turning spring success into meaningful results this season.
"We have the talent, now it's going to be getting experience as you go," Wieters said. "But, it's really just competing. And that's the good thing about baseball, is it doesn't matter how much money you have or what kind of players you put on your team, it's every game anyone can win in this game."
Although the phrase "hope springs eternal" is a cliche around baseball's opening month, the energy radiating out of Orioles camp is more authentic than seasons' past.
"It's realistic excitement, as well as hopeful excitement," said second baseman Brian Roberts, who has spent his entire career in Baltimore and is the longest-tenured Oriole. "People say, 'What are your realistic expectations?' But I don't think any of us can really predict what's going to happen.
"Those young arms start to get some confidence and throw the ball well, and you never know what can happen. So that's the exciting part is that you know talent-wise you're pretty close. And when you're pretty close, then you have a chance no matter what."
And for a franchise mired in obscurity -- finishing higher than fourth in the division just once in the past dozen seasons -- a chance is all the Orioles need.
"I think we're ready to take a big step forward," said free-agent acquisition Mike Gonzalez. Signed to a two-year deal to be the team's closer, Gonzalez said the Orioles young talent and shrewd offseason moves -- such as the Millwood signing -- were big selling points in coming to Baltimore.
And while Millwood will mentor the young arms, the game's outcome -- as well as the frailty of each pitcher's win-loss record -- is essentially in the hands of the 31-year-old Gonzalez.
"We have to piece everything together, and it all has to click at the same time in order for us to win ballgames [in this division]," Gonzalez said. "But the opportunity is there. And you can't ask for more than that."
Added Roberts: "I don't know if we can say that [we've turned the corner] until halfway through the year, or maybe the end of the year. But, we all believe that we are starting to make that turn."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.