Orioles falling way behind in arms race

July 23, 2011|By Peter Schmuck

If you've been around here for the past few years, you know the underlying philosophy of the latest Orioles rebuilding program.

Grow the arms. Buy the bats.

Made perfect sense when Andy MacPhail took over the team in 2007 and set to work to build a stronger foundation of minor league talent. The Orioles were in no position to sign a Roy Halladay or a C.C. Sabathia , so the logic of putting an over-arching organizational emphasis on drafting and developing quality pitching was indisputable.

So, why — four years into The Plan — is the team's pitching situation in such a shambles that the Orioles have had to throw the likes of Mitch Atkins and Chris Jakubauskas in front of the nastiest offensive lineups in the American League?

There's no simple answer, especially when you consider that the club's young starting rotation looked like it was getting ready to bloom as the Orioles broke camp in Sarasota less than four months ago. Then the dominoes started to fall, exposing what probably shouldn't have been a surprising lack of pitching depth in the upper levels of the minor league system.

It actually wasn't surprising to MacPhail and manager Buck Showalter. They knew there was vulnerability under the surface. They knew that if they lost a couple of key arms early, it was going to be difficult to hold the rotation together.

If there was any surprise after Brian Matusz opened the season on the disabled list and the Orioles were forced to use their minor league ace in the hole — Zach Britton — well ahead of schedule, it was how well the pitching held up for a couple of months before coming unraveled during the weeks leading up to the All-Star break.

Now, everyone can see there's a huge air pocket in the pitching pipeline, but there may be precious little that MacPhail can do about it other than hope against hope that Matusz finds his way back and Britton successfully navigates a critical adjustment period in his early development as a major league starter.

The situation has become desperate enough that Showalter hinted again Wednesday that the team may soon give setup man Jim Johnson a chance to re-establish himself as a starting pitcher.

The only other alternative over the short term would be for MacPhail to alter his philosophy and find a way to "buy" some arms, either by trading away quality talent to acquire at least one more decent starter (which would likely create a new hole in the roster) or pouring money into the upcoming free agent market.

Since the deadline for making trades without passing players through waivers is just a week away, we'll see soon enough whether MacPhail considers the problem urgent enough to make an in-season play for real help. It's not an easy thing to do, since other teams aren't generally eager to deal good pitching and the Orioles aren't exactly rolling in surplus talent.

Shopping for free agent starters always seems to be problematic for the Orioles, who are not willing or able to outbid the large-market teams for superstar talent and are not particularly attractive to the pitchers they can afford.

Given the choice between pitching for a team that plays nearly half of its games against the beasts of the AL East and signing with a team that plays in a roomy ballpark in the NL West, well, what would you do? Now, throw in the likelihood that this year's crop of free agent starting pitchers might be the thinnest in years and you're looking at a pretty dismal free agent picture.

The long-term solution is more obvious. The Orioles are getting out-scouted and out-developed by teams that also are able to outspend them at the major league level, so they need to stop half-stepping with the domestic and international scouting budgets.

They've been picking near the top of the draft for more than a decade, and what they have to show for it at the major league level are a handful of good players (Matt Wieters, Matusz, Markakis, Jake Arrieta) who were high on everybody's list. The real art of the draft is in the later rounds, and the key to exploiting the later rounds is a well-heeled scouting operation that leaves no prospect unturned.

Sure, it's theoretically possible to do more with less, but it's time for this organization to admit that it has settled for less long enough.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and wbal com.

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