Mound hopefuls wash out - along with optimism

March 18, 2009|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -No one should be surprised, but when the Orioles dispatched their three top pitching prospects to the organization's minor league camp in Sarasota over the weekend, the whole optimism-of-spring thing sort of went along for the ride across Alligator Alley.

Brian Matusz could light up Fort Lauderdale Stadium with his curveball. Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta could make the future appear as if it's just around the corner. The three of them created so much buzz during the early weeks of spring training that it was easy not to notice that the major league pitching staff they will someday lead was quietly coming unraveled.

If there seemed to be strength in numbers when 37 pitchers reported to training camp Feb. 14, that thought seems quaint now. The wheels - and the arms - started to come off during the first Grapefruit League game, and that supposed depth has been dissipating ever since.

Maybe we should have figured something was up when the first starting pitcher to take the mound (Brad Hennessey) had to be removed in the second inning with a sore elbow. Then came the continuing saga of Rich Hill, the latest travails of John Parrish, the shoulder impingement of Jim Johnson, the tight hamstring of Koji Uehara and the sore back of Mark Hendrickson.

The Orioles opened spring training with 14 candidates for the starting rotation, but even with the late addition of Adam Eaton, so many have fallen by the wayside - either because of injury or ineffectiveness - that the club is accelerating the development of Brad Bergesen and seriously considering Brian Bass for one of the three unfilled slots.

Pitching coach Rick Kranitz summed it up when he was talking about the way Bass had moved up the depth chart the past few weeks.

"Obviously, what he did last year put him in a position for us to look at him," Kranitz said. "But when we talked to him during the winter and he said he wanted to come in as a starter, we said, 'Wait a minute.' After the first week, we lost two starters, and all bets were off."

No disrespect to Bass, but he was probably No. 12 or 13 on that list three weeks ago. Now, he's on the bubble, though Kranitz insists Bass was not the "sleeper" he talked about when he said early on that he had put together a starting rotation in his mind.

"He was really sleeping then," Kranitz said.

Manager Dave Trembley keeps saying there is plenty of time and there are enough candidates to assemble a representative rotation, but every day seems to challenge that theory. David Pauley, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox after a strong year at Triple-A Pawtucket, struggled again Monday and appears to be pitching himself out of consideration. In four exhibition appearances, he has pitched 11 innings and allowed 26 base runners. Hayden Penn, who also is out of minor league options, has allowed 13 base runners in 7 2/3 innings. Radhames Liz also has been unimpressive, prompting Trembley and Kranitz to remove him from the competition this week and place him in the running for one of the long-relief roles.

Training camp opened with three spots in the rotation up for grabs, and that's still the case more than halfway to Opening Day. The only thing that has changed is the number of legitimate candidates, and not for the better. Of course, it's not as if the camp was chock-full of potential aces. The Orioles spent the latter part of the offseason packing the roster with major league projects and minor league free agents. Still, they had to figure with all those bodies and all that opportunity, at least a couple of these guys would step forward, but it has gotten to the point where Hendrickson gave up two runs on five hits over three innings Monday and that was enough to improve his chances of cracking the not-so-fab five.

Hard to believe, but the team that opened spring training with more than three dozen pitchers might soon be in the market for more. Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail has dismissed any speculation about veteran free agent Pedro Martinez, but he indicated recently that Orioles scouts are shadowing teams that might have surplus pitching and option problems.

It must be strange to be in that position when you just sent out three of the best pitching prospects in the game, but that can't be helped. Arrieta, Matusz and Tillman left over the weekend to continue their baseball education in the minor leagues - which is absolutely the right decision - but the skies over Fort Lauderdale started to cloud up as soon as they headed out of town.

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

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