Future stock

An abundance of promising pitching prospects lifts the Orioles' hopes for 2010, 2011 and beyond

March 01, 2009|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz stood stoically behind the group of mounds, his arms folded, his eyes fixed on the future that was now so tantalizingly close.

Brian Matusz snapped off a curveball from one mound and Brad Bergesen threw his sinker from another. Minutes later, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta fired fastballs into outstretched mitts, the popping sound audible on the back fields at the Orioles' spring training complex.

Most members of what scouts consider one of the best pitching prospect groups in all of baseball are here at Fort Lauderdale Stadium this spring, throwing bullpen sessions, getting into the occasional Grapefruit League game and familiarizing themselves with an organization that is counting so heavily on their development.

"I hope they are special. I hope they are even better than what we think," Kranitz said. "But our standards are pretty high for them to begin with."

The elite pitching prospects aren't serious candidates to make the Opening Day roster, but their time is expected to come in the days ahead after more birthdays are celebrated, more on-the-mound experience is gained and already impressive stuff is further refined.

"If you want to be a huge dreamer, you start thinking about those early '70s [Orioles] rotations," said Kevin Goldstein, a national writer for Baseball Prospectus. "Obviously that's hyperbole, but there's definitely a lot of talent. If everything breaks right, you are talking about a 2011 Orioles rotation that could be pretty sick."

The names are mostly familiar by now. Matusz was the fourth overall pick in last year's draft because he possesses three above-average pitches and the poise of a veteran. Tillman, the ultra-talented right-hander acquired in the Erik Bedard deal, hasn't hit his 21st birthday, but he has already proved capable of dominating more experienced hitters with a power fastball and curveball.

Arrieta is only a handful of months removed from pitching six shutout innings against China in the Olympics, while Bergesen, David Hernandez and Troy Patton have had their own minor league successes.

"Their pitching ranks with anyone in the business," Goldstein said. "There's no doubt about it. Tillman and Matusz are two guys that I have among the top 25 prospects in baseball. Arrieta is in the top 50. [Brandon] Erbe makes it in the top 100, and there are these guys after them that may not be studs, but they project as back-of-the-rotation inning eaters. And those guys are valuable. They just have a ton of pitching."

Orioles fans, understandably jaded after 11 straight losing seasons, are weary of tying the organization's future to pitchers who could be a couple of years from being ready. They have watched other hyped prospects, such as Mike Paradis and Beau Hale, falter.

Just three springs ago, they imagined Bedard, Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera leading a potentially dominant rotation; now, all three are gone from the organization. Former top pitching prospects Radhames Liz and Hayden Penn are still around, but Liz could be moved to the bullpen and Penn is out of options and could be approaching his final days in the organization unless he pitches well this spring.

Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America, understands fans' skepticism but said the Orioles have better quality and quantity of young pitchers than they've had in the past. There will also be the presence of Matt Wieters, baseball's top prospect, who caught most of the Orioles' young pitchers last year in either Single-A or Double-A, to help the group along.

"Attrition attacks pitchers, but the Orioles have enough arms and enough solid prospects where they should be able to make a difference on the big league staff," said Callis, whose publication recently ranked the Orioles' minor league system as the ninth best in baseball, their highest ranking since 1994. "It's not like they just have Tillman and Matusz. You have Brandon Erbe, Jake Arrieta. In a lot of organizations Erbe would jump out more, but in the Orioles' system, he gets lost in the shuffle a little bit. There are not too many arms like his in the minors."

Erbe, a 21-year-old right-hander who went to McDonogh, will be at minor league spring training this month, joined by the rest of the organization's top pitching prospects as they trickle in from major league camp. Club president Andy MacPhail, whose rebuilding plan is tied to the development of the young pitchers, has said all along that the organization won't rush the prospects simply to fill holes at the major league level.

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