Shaky pitching staff will have Orioles up in arms

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April 05, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

It is the 50th and final day of the longest spring training anyone can remember, and there are still many more questions than answers about the Orioles' volatile pitching situation.

Too many, in fact, for any team hoping for a respectable performance in 2009 and certainly too many for any team that will have to play 54 games this year against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays.

Which leaves only one that really matters:

Where do the Orioles go from here?

Jeremy Guthrie, last year's most consistent starter, will take the mound Opening Day shrouded in doubt. No. 2 starter Koji Uehara is coming off an injury-limited spring. And the rest of the rotation is a piecemeal array of other clubs' castoffs that wasn't decided until former Mexican League pitcher Alfredo Simon stepped up and star-crossed prospect Hayden Penn stepped down during the final week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The bullpen is in much better shape, with two experienced closers and some quality setup guys, but all you have to do is look at the relief splits from the first and second half of last season to know how much that's going to matter if the starting rotation is as uneven as advertised.

If that scares you, you are not alone. No doubt, manager Dave Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz have spent a few sleepless nights pondering the frightening possibilities and hoping for some miraculous change in direction when the lights go on this week.

They knew the score coming in, but that doesn't make it any easier. The Orioles clearly view the 2009 season as transitional, with several solid minor league prospects poised to come up during the season (probably starting with Brad Bergesen sometime in the next few weeks) and some top-quality prospects likely to pop in 2010 and 2011. The front office mantra has been "doing what's right for the good young players," even though you can make the case that the Orioles could assemble a better starting rotation right now out of the minor league system than the one that will start the season in the major leagues.

Training camp opened with two established pitchers projected to be in the rotation, and you can hardly call Guthrie a seasoned veteran when he isn't even eligible for salary arbitration yet. The Orioles started with 37 pitchers and a field of candidates for the last three rotation slots that numbered in double digits but came up with only two out of that group. Adam Eaton signed with the club after camp opened.

"We knew coming in that it was going to be a tryout for some guys, and it was," said Kranitz, whose ability to remain positive throughout this process should prepare him well for the motivational lecture circuit. "Alfredo Simon did a great job. Some other guys didn't."

That's something of an understatement on both counts. Simon was the best pitcher in camp and basically forced himself into the rotation. If every decision were based on spring training numbers, he would be starting against the Yankees on Monday. The reality, however, is that he's a guy who came into camp more prepared to pitch than some of the veterans because he was fresh off the winter league season. He reported very late to camp because of visa issues, which also might have contributed to an optimum audition once he got into the Grapefruit League rotation.

He has real talent, but he's likely to find out over the next couple of weeks that there is a stark difference between the lineups he faced in Florida and the ones he'll face in the American League East.

The Orioles considered Guthrie the one sure thing in the starter mix after he ranked 14th in the AL in ERA last year, but opposing hitters treated him like a pinata in the Grapefruit League and the World Baseball Classic. His exhibition ERA (10.57) ranks right there with the one that got Penn traded for a utility infielder Wednesday. Uehara has shown great command of his pitches when he hasn't been rehabilitating a hamstring strain, but he had fallen out of the Tokyo Giants' rotation before jumping to the American major leagues.

Eaton didn't pitch well all spring, and Mark Hendrickson made the rotation largely by default. He pitched well at times - and has historically been effective in April - but the original plan was to use him in a long-relief role.

Kranitz keeps reminding everyone that spring statistics don't mean much, but he conceded that training camp didn't go as planned.

"In the sense that Jeremy was gone [taking part in the World Baseball Classic] and Koji had the hamstring," he said. "Obviously, you want guys to get ready and throw their innings."

If there was a silver lining around the clouds that loomed over training camp, it was the healthy return of former closer Chris Ray and some of the potential that was on display earlier this spring. Baseball America just ranked Chris Tillman and 2008 top draft choice Brian Matusz among the top 25 major league prospects. Jake Arrieta was ranked only 68th on the publication's Top 100 list, but he continues to impress everyone with his poise and maturity, and Bergesen (who was not on the list) was one of the most consistent starters in camp before he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk to wait for the next opening in the rotation.

It really is all about the future.

That's where the Orioles go from here.

The 2009 season is a transitional year.

Just keep telling yourself that.

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

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