Young pitchers show change is coming
With Draft approaching, Orioles will add to deep talent pool
Anger. Shock. Disappointment.
A quick look at Baltimore's Major League-worst record of 15-36 can cause a multitude of reactions, as an injury-ravaged and underperforming Orioles squad has dug themselves into a deficit that might as well be a black hole given the nature of the tough American League East.
But with preparations for June 7's First-Year Player Draft at their pinnacle, the Orioles are poised to add another top prospect to an increasingly deep farm system. Fans of a franchise that has gone 12 years without a winning team are asked to hold on, perhaps a little longer than they would like, as the Orioles continue down a path they hope will lead to prosperity.
"It's hard to see right now with the record of the Major League club, because that's where the emphasis is," director of scouting Joe Jordan said. "But progress has been made."
Jordan said last week that there are as many as five players still in the organization's conversations regarding the club's third overall pick. Whether the Orioles go with a pitcher or position player, they have an opportunity to add top-flight talent to a once-maligned farm system that has undergone an unmitigated rebuilding effort under president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail's nearly three-year regime.
"I wrote up 10 reports [at Class-A Advanced Frederick]," Jordan said. "That means there's 10 legitimate prospects. It's easy to lose sight of that when things are going so poorly at the Major League level."
Fortunately for the Orioles, the cavalry is much closer than High A ball, particularly in the arms race. Top prospect Chris Tillman was recalled and made his Major League season debut Saturday in Toronto. Tillman's rotation-mate at Triple-A Norfolk, Jake Arrieta, has an International League-leading 1.86 ERA and is knocking at the door. And in Double-A, highly touted lefty Zach Britton is working on a changeup that could make him particularly potent in the big leagues, a promotion that could come as soon as this season.
"I think there's always that sense of hope," Tillman said regarding the O's current young core and expected additions. "We went through it in '08, '09 and now in '10, too."
"Ever team is going to go through their ups and down. When it comes from the inner [farm system] it's more special when [winning] does happen."
Tillman joins Brad Bergesen and Brian Matusz in the Orioles rotation as three pitchers who have yet to hit their 25th birthday. Tillman made his debut last season with the O's -- who were dealing with a rash of injuries -- but started this year in Triple-A, tasked to improve his command and further develop his cut fastball.
"Obviously I was disappointed [going to Triple-A], but I think I was more stubborn on the things they told me to work on, like fastball command," Tillman said. "I would get 0-2 on a hitter and would try to put a guy away with a good fastball instead of going to what I normally go to. So, I was trying to do too much of what they were trying to tell me to do, instead of going out there and pitching."
The young right-hander struggled mightily in his first three Triple-A starts before going 5-1 in his last seven outings, including April 28's complete-game no-hitter.
"I wanted to stick to [fastball command], nothing else, because I wanted to get [to the Major Leagues] sooner rather than later," Tillman said. "I took a step backwards, once I saw what it did to me, [and] then I was able to mix everything in and go from there."
Tillman -- who allowed two runs over 5 2/3 innings in Saturday's no-decision -- said he was more nervous pitching in the Minors than at the Blue Jays' Rogers Centre because he felt he had something to prove in each Norfolk start. He admits that he let the hype surrounding him and his pending debut affect his performance in Triple-A last season, and made sure that wasn't the case in '10.
"I saw what it did to me last year; I definitely struggled once it got in my head," Tillman said. "So I sat down with Jake and said, 'Hey, you can't buy into that kind of stuff. Just do your thing, and focus on what you got to do here [in Norfolk].'"
If Arrieta's pending Major League arrival is on his mind, he isn't showing it on the hill.
After allowing just one earned run in his first four starts -- a stretch of 25 innings -- Arrieta has consistently dominated Triple-A hitters. In his first 10 starts, Arrieta is holding opponents to a .181 batting average and has allowed just three homers in 63 innings.
When asked about his success, Arrieta said everything has "just clicked." He has been able to command a fastball that touches 97 mph -- getting ahead of hitters and setting up his offspeed -- and has put an emphasis on limiting walks.
"I honestly think that [the Orioles] know that I'm ready to pitch in the big leagues," Arrieta said. "For me, it's just a matter of having a spot open or whatever it might be. I don't know what it is, but I'm sure that they've noticed something."
While he waits for the call, Arrieta has relied on the experience of Matusz -- who advised him to not try to change once he gets to The Show -- and the advice of Tillman.
"I think both of those guys are good guys to be able to talk to," said Arrieta, who spent time with all of the current Orioles pitchers in big league camp this spring.
And if the Orioles have it their way, the trio will be much-talked about as well. Matusz was ranked No. 5 on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list.
They are a young nucleus that provides hope for a big league team.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.