Young pitching core waiting to develop
Orioles' promising throwers disappointed by injury, ineffectiveness
BALTIMORE -- It was a little more than four months ago when then-pitching coach Mark Connor shuffled five young starters -- Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton and Brad Bergesen -- into a small room at the Orioles' spring home in Sarasota, Fla., for a closed-door meeting that morphed into a multifaceted discussion. The 90-minute talk touched on the progressions and pitfalls involved in being a Major League pitcher, and the rare opportunity that the young core assembled had in front of them to, together, push an organization with 13 consecutive losing seasons back toward prominence.
No one said it was going to be easy, but with 10 weeks of the season remaining and a 14th sub-.500 season nearly a foregone conclusion, no one could have predicted it would be this difficult. Largely, that same group of Orioles arms that flourished upon Buck Showalter's arrival last August -- pitching to a 3.16 ERA in the final 57 games -- has struggled all season with injury and ineffectiveness, as a spring that started with promise has become a summer littered with setbacks.
"I wouldn't sugarcoat it -- it's a disappointment," Showalter said of the expected development of the five young starters, with three of them currently in the Minor Leagues and Arrieta the only member of the group that has been a mainstay in the rotation.
"Some of them have been physical issues," Showalter said in reference to the left intercostal muscle strain that sidelined Matusz for the first two months. "But we knew that depth was going to be challenge for us if we had some injuries or, even worse, we had people who weren't productive or didn't take advantage of the opportunity that they were given and move forward."
In lieu of their young starters, the Orioles have been forced to employ Alfredo Simon, Chris Jakubauskas and Mitch Atkins with a roster in a constant state of flux as Showalter and president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail piece together starts game by game. To say that the trio of arms -- none of whom was on the Opening Day roster -- weren't in the team's original plans would be putting it mildly. Simon, who has filled in admirably, missed all of Spring Training with legal issues. Atkins was sidelined with injury and didn't throw a meaningful pitch in camp, and Jakubauskas didn't even get an official big league invite.
The team's projected No. 2 starter in the Opening Day rotation, Matusz (1-4, 8.77 ERA), is in Triple-A with Tillman (2-3, 4.69 ERA), while Britton (6-7, 4.05 ERA, an early American League Rookie of the Year Award candidate) was sent to Double-A earlier this month to help stretch his season and alleviate a rough patch preceding that. Bergesen (2-6, 5.54 ERA), who has seen time in the Minors and the bullpen, has struggled to get into a rhythm all season, although he is coming off a quality outing on Saturday, while Arrieta (9-7, 5.02 ERA) has been the best of the group -- but largely inconsistent. It is a far cry from the final two months of the 2010 season in which Matusz and Bergesen both posted sub-3 ERAs, with Arrieta (3-3, 3.78) and Tillman (1-1, 4.08) also showing marked improvement.
"It's kind of upsetting to not see us all together, continuing to grow," said Arrieta, who keeps in frequent contact with Matusz and Britton. "It's not really, at this point in time, going the way we all planned it, the way we all thought it was going to go.
"It is very frustrating to know that pretty much we were kind of handed this responsibility, and if we embrace it like we know we can and put in all the work, we know that the reward is, at the end of the road, is greater than we can possibly imagine," he added. "It wears on us. Knowing how good we can be and the potential that we do have, not reaching that potential right now [as a group] is frustrating."
Perhaps it was unfair to hinge hopes for an immediate turnaround on a collection of arms that is with the exception of Jeremy Guthrie -- all 25 and under, with only Matusz entering the season with more than 200 career Major League innings under his belt. But given the way the same group (minus Britton) ended last season, it was expected that the young arms would continue to move forward -- or at the very least, hold their own -- despite the rigors of learning in a brutal AL East.
"For me, it's a great challenge," said Rick Adair, who became the Orioles' third pitching coach in 1 1/2 seasons when Connor resigned June 14 for personal reasons.
Asked if his perception of the group and its collective ceiling has changed since first watching video of each arm last winter, Adair, who was named bullpen coach to start the season, said it's actually improved.
"When you get to know these guys personally and see what happens on a daily basis, and see their progress in their work, sometimes it doesn't correlate to the field, but there's some good things going on here," Adair said. "There's no doubt in my mind it's evolving in the process."
But when that process will start to pay dividends -- and if these touted young pitchers will ever measure up to the expectations of the organization and its long-suffering fan base -- is anyone's guess.
"It's one thing to come in and do something that's fresh and it's new to you and it's new to the opposition," said Showalter, whose arrival in Baltimore last season sparked a 34-23 finish. "It's another thing to do it when it's expected of you. I think that's the trouble with young pitchers. When you get a short sampling, sometimes people read too much into it.
"I think the good ones learn from their struggles. And if they are good, it's like the old [saying], they are going to come back and bite back. And if they are not, it's a pretty easy evaluation."
"[There's been] a lot of bumps along this road this season," Arrieta said. "But it's not too late to turn things around. We got to try to get whatever we can out of this season in the short amount of time we have left."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.