FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sometime this spring, the Orioles will have to make a decision on Radhames Liz's future, ending the debate about whether he belongs in a major league rotation or the bullpen.
"We talk about it a lot, but the decision definitely has not been made," Orioles minor league director David Stockstill said. "He has the stamina, strength and the pitches to be a starter. What he doesn't have is the location and the feel for the off-speed pitch yet to be the starter that we want him to be.
"He's got to get those two things - the command of the fastball and the feel of a changeup - to be a starter. There is no reason he can't, but at the same time, he can go out today and pitch the eighth inning for us and he'll probably throw 2 to 3 [mph] harder."
Therein lies the Orioles' conundrum. With three open rotation spots available and injuries taking their toll on some of the candidates, the Orioles are not in a position to rule out potential starters, especially when their bullpen is already stocked with solid relief options.
However, Liz, a 25-year-old right-hander who not too long ago was considered the organization's top pitching prospect, has yet to show that he can be counted on every five days to pitch out of the rotation, and his power stuff seems conducive to a setup role. Liz has a 6-8 record over parts of two major league seasons with a 6.77 ERA in 26 appearances, including 21 starts. In those 21 starts, Liz has pitched six complete innings just five times.
He got the start yesterday against the Florida Marlins and mostly struggled, allowing an earned run on two hits and two walks over two-plus innings. He said he didn't like the way he pitched and couldn't command his slider.
"I don't think we're totally dismissing the fact that he is going to be a starter, but he's going to have to show that he's going to be a little more consistent and not be so predictable," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "He was so predictable last year with his fastball. I don't care, if you're throwing 95, 96 and 97, these guys get a chance to time you up, you're going to pay for it somewhere along the line. He's definitely going to have to make some adjustments."
Liz was most effective in his rocky 2008 season early in games, when opponents had yet to time his mid-90s fastball. In first innings last year, the opposition batted .293 with a .376 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. The numbers are hardly impressive, but they got significantly worse for Liz as his outings wore on.
Overall, hitters facing Liz for the first time in a game have a .268 average and a .421 slugging percentage. The second time, those numbers grow to a .299 average with a .503 slugging, and in their third look at Liz, batters are hitting .310 with a .524 slugging percentage.
Those numbers speak of a pitcher who needs to develop better secondary pitches and learn how to make adjustments as the game wears on. Kranitz acknowledged that those are both fair criticisms of Liz, and even he wonders how effective the right-hander would be if he were asked to come in for just an inning or two later in games.
"I think we were looking for him to do some of that last year a little bit, just coming in and saying: 'Go after him. Let's see what you got for an inning or two innings,' " Kranitz said. "He did pretty well early in games, but the later the game went, the more his command issues started to come into play. That's when those guys get you. They see you a little bit and get a feel for what you got. He fell in that trap a little bit."
For his part, Liz said he wants to be a starter but his biggest goal is to make the team. "I want to be in the starting rotation, and I have the stuff to be here," Liz said. "So all I'm doing is working hard."
Orioles manager Dave Trembley praised Liz's work ethic and said his mechanics have improved. But he has yet to show enough for the Orioles to determine he's a starter they can count on in the future.
"I think he could be a reliever down the road, but in our situation right now we're looking for a third, fourth and fifth starter," Trembley said. "I would not rule out at some particular point in time that he would go in the bullpen, but right now what we're looking for is for him to start for us."