Orioles buy into youth, but pitchers on layaway

March 03, 2009|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Maybe it was right after Rich Hill left for his magnetic resonance imaging yesterday morning. Maybe it was when manager Dave Trembley was fawning over 2008 top draft choice Brian Matusz before the Orioles defeated the Boston Red Sox in the early afternoon. Maybe it was after Brad Bergesen pitched three scoreless innings in that 5-3 victory at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Maybe it all came together to take me back in time to another training camp in another sport.

Of course, I'm talking about Ravens training camp last year, when general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh started out with every intention of bringing rookie quarterback Joe Flacco along slowly but finally had to surrender to circumstance and move the future up a year.

The Orioles don't want to put themselves in the same position. That's why Andy MacPhail stocked this training camp with so many pitchers that you can't tell a lot of them without a numerical roster. That's why Trembley doesn't even allow himself to imagine what his pitching staff might look like if he could start building it around Matusz and Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta.

Oh, and if you're wondering why I didn't mention Bergesen, that's because he's the one guy in the group of top pitching prospects who might end up being the exception, both out of necessity and because he's a "strike-thrower." He's a little further along on the developmental scale than the three pitchers who cracked Baseball America's list of Top 100 Prospects last week.

The question is whether circumstances could force the acceleration of the Orioles' pitching youth movement. The team already has temporarily lost Hill, Brad Hennessey and John Parrish to arm issues, and there still are five weeks left of training camp. MacPhail just signed veteran Adam Eaton to add organizational depth, but the rotation remains Jeremy Guthrie, Koji Uehara and three big question marks.

Trembley acknowledges the temptation to want to look into the future too soon but insists there is no chance the coaching staff or the front office will succumb to it.

The conversation started with Matusz. Trembley reiterated yesterday that there is no possibility of Matusz making the major league rotation out of spring training, even if he continues to look as good as he has so far.

"Obviously, Matusz is not going to make the team," Trembley said, "but he's been very impressive. He has four pitches and he knows it. ... He's got a twinkle in his eye. He's got a lot of confidence. He's got a toolbox and he knows what to do with the tools in that toolbox."

Tillman was next.

"I'd take Tillman in a heartbeat," Trembley added, "but he's going to the minor leagues. That's what Andy said, and I agree with him."

Trembley's high opinion of Arrieta already is well known, and he completes the top-prospect trifecta that would make the 2009 season at Camden Yards a lot more interesting but for the small matter of what's best for the young men involved. The Orioles are committed to doing what is right for their total development, even if it might be better for the win-loss record and the entertainment value of the team to let them develop in Baltimore.

Everyone is eager to see each of them paired with catcher Matt Wieters at Oriole Park. There is little reason to doubt they would perform just as well as some of the veteran guys who have been brought in. They would certainly create instant hope for a new era of respectability for the once-proud Orioles franchise. And it would be a mistake of monstrous proportion, because there is just too much to lose by rushing any of them.

The only level it makes sense is at the entertainment level. It would be fun to watch those guys go out there every fifth day and, it's hoped, grow into the nucleus of a great rotation right before our eyes. Great fun.

It would be a disaster, however, if one or more of them had his confidence damaged pitching too much, too soon in a division full of the best hitters on the planet. It also would be a waste to use up their valuable service time on a season in which they would all have to pop at the same time for the Orioles to even fantasize about being a wild-card contender.

I brought up the Flacco situation because it does provide a cross-sport parallel of sorts. But the NFL is a different world where you don't get several years to develop young players and you can't bring 37 quarterback candidates into camp. Flacco might have played at some point last year even if Kyle Boller and Troy Smith had been available to start the regular season, but he was forced into action from the start and it worked out just fine.

Trembley can dream about doing the same thing with his three top pitching prospects, but, like everybody else, he's going to have to wait to see them at Camden Yards.

Listen to Peter Schmuck from spring training on WBAL (1090 AM) every weeknight from 6 to 7.

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