Ride for O's 'Cavalry' has been bumpy

Young starters, expected to be core of pitching staff, have struggled, but club expects improvement

June 21, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SAN DIEGO —

The Cavalry, the nickname former manager Dave Trembley gave to the organization's group of starting pitching prospects, has pretty much arrived, though not all its members have moved forward during the Orioles' brutal 2010 season.

Brad Bergesen, a 24-year-old right-hander who was the Orioles' best pitcher last year, was sent back to Triple-A Norfolk with a 6.50 ERA. Chris Tillman, a 22-year-old considered one of baseball's top pitching prospects not long ago, could be joining the Tides shortly after he produced an 8.40 ERA in four starts with the Orioles.

One-time Rookie of the Year candidate Brian Matusz is winless in his past 11 outings, though he has seven quality starts in that span, while Jake Arrieta lost some momentum from his 2-0 start when he was torched by the San Diego Padres for six runs in three innings Sunday and couldn't hold a four-run lead.

It has been that kind of up-and-down year for the Orioles' young arms, who are undergoing the trials and tribulations of being inexperienced big league pitchers in the American League East.

"I think people need to understand, and I certainly feel like this, you need to let them grow at their own pace," Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "They're not ready to be Cy Young Award winners right now. It's all about learning on the job. Not everybody is ready at the same time or at the same age."

Less than an hour south of Camden Yards, Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg has grabbed the attention of the baseball world, compiling a 2-0 record and 1.86 ERA over his first three outings while striking out 32 batters and walking only five in 191/3 innings.

Of course, none of the Orioles' young starters has been called a once-in-a-generation talent like Strasburg, nor has any dealt with such expectations. But with the team having the worst record in the sport and a fan base desperate for something to feel good about, the progress of the young arms has been under the microscope even more.

While there have been plenty of positive signs -- David Hernandez and Jason Berken have become mainstays in the bullpen, Matusz has a 3.37 ERA in seven starts this season against the AL East and Tillman threw a no-hitter in Triple-A -- there have also been discouraging ones that raise the question of whether this group will eventually be good enough to make up the bulk of the rotation of a contender in baseball's toughest division.

"A lot of us were top prospects who were supposed to turn this organization around, but look at other guys who have pitched in the AL East, like [Clay] Buchholz, Phil Hughes and even David Price. They didn't get out to great starts," said Matusz, a left-hander who at age 23 is 2-7 with a 4.67 ERA and has made half his 14 starts against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.

"This isn't easy. It's not just about having great stuff; it's getting used to being in the AL East and facing big league hitters every five days. It's not just going to all click right away. I still feel confident as I can be in these guys just because I know how much I've learned and how much better that I've gotten. You learn from failure, and failure is going to happen."

Overall, the Orioles' team ERA is an AL-worst 4.98, and the ERA of the starters is 5.12, better than only the Kansas City Royals' rotation.

Despite those numbers, which aren't entirely the result of the young pitchers' struggles, Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said he has not been displeased with the progress of the organization's promising arms, especially with the circumstances -- poor run support, lousy infield defense, a tough schedule -- they've had to pitch under.

"I don't think it's reasonable to expect that a young pitching staff wouldn't have their ups and downs, and they have," MacPhail said.

"The pitching has been along the lines of what one can reasonably anticipate. I just was counting on more offense than we've gotten. The alarming thing is it seems like if we have a chance to win the game, we have to keep our opponents to two or three runs."

Kranitz was the pitching coach of the Florida Marlins in 2006 and 2007. The 2006 squad became the first in major league history to have at least four rookies win at least 10 games each. Three of those 2006 rookies -- Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez -- are in the Marlins' solid 2010 rotation, which will be on display this week at Camden Yards in a three-game series with the Orioles.

All three had their struggles after their rookie years, because of either injuries or inconsistency, and have persevered, something team officials are waiting for the Orioles' youngsters to do.

"They all came on with vengeance early," Kranitz recalled of the Marlins' pitchers. "Then, they all had similar things, injuries here or there, that set them back. You have to work through all of those things, and they did.

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