Britton may be out but Orioles still have options

March 20, 2012|Peter Schmuck

It was one of those here-we-go-again moments that always seem to land right in your lap when you're trying to find some reason to be optimistic about the Orioles.

Pitching prospect Zach Britton, who was called up last April after an injury forced Brian Matusz out of the starting rotation on the final day of spring training, has been shut down again and is headed to see world-renowned sports injury specialist Dr. James Andrews for another opinion on his inflamed left shoulder.

This is not good, though the Orioles still are casting the problem as "inflammation" and remain hopeful that Britton can successfully rehab his shoulder without resorting to the medical equivalent of the nuclear option —season-ending and career-threatening surgery.

Sorry to even mention that possibility , since it would be another cruel twist in the sad saga that has been the Orioles for the past decade or so. Britton is a great kid with a great arm and, hopefully, a bright future, but when you come up shoulder-sore in one season and the soreness is still there the next, it's hard not to consider the scarier possibilities.

Britton is one of the cornerstones of an Orioles youth movement that was supposed to bloom last spring, before Matusz went down and Jake Arrieta's bone spur acted up and Britton's Rookie-of-the-Year start turned south in midsummer. It was starting to look like this year would give all three of them a chance for a do-over, but now there's little chance Britton will be pitching at the major league level in April.

Is there a bright side to all of this? Maybe not for Britton, unless Andrews confirms there is nothing structurally wrong with his shoulder and that anti-inflammatory medication and another throwing progression will probably get him back on the mound in a month or two. That's certainly the best-case scenario — the one that Britton, the team and Orioles fans are hoping for — but the team will have to prepare for the worst.

Suddenly, new baseball operations chief Dan Duquette is looking pretty smart for packing the club's new spring training facility to the rafters with starting rotation candidates. Where the Orioles were forced to bring up Britton earlier than planned last April to fill the hole when Matusz was shelved for two months with an intercostal strain, manager Buck Showalter still has more than five viable candidates for this year's rotation.

Of course, we could argue all day over what exactly constitutes a viable starting pitcher on a team that has been at or near the bottom of the AL East standings for the past 14 years, but there have been some very positive early returns from Matusz and Arrieta as well as from newcomers Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen.

If the season were to start today, the rotation likely would be comprised of Arrieta, Hammel, Matusz, Chen and Tommy Hunter (though not necessarily in that order) and that's how it probably would be projected even if Britton had not come up sore again. There already was talk of him starting the season at extended spring training.

The Orioles also are starting to get a look at Japanese pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, who was shut down early in camp with a swollen elbow, and they were very encouraged by his exhibition debut against the Atlanta Braves. His velocity was better than advertised and his changeup was deceptive enough to baffle several good hitters.

Wada came into camp hoping to compete for a place in the starting rotationbut now may have to work out of the bullpen and wait for an opening.

The Orioles also have some possible rotation surplus in Dana Eveland, who has pitched well after a rocky debut, and Alfredo Simon, who was building a pretty good case for himself until he had to be pulled out of Sunday's televised game against the New York Yankees with a re-aggravated groin strain. Right-hander Chris Tillman also remains in the mix after displaying greater mound presence in a couple of early outings.

Reading too much into spring training statistics is a precarious business, but six of the rotation candidates have spring ERAs at or below 3.60 and that group does not include Arrieta, who is throwing very well and is one of two likely candidates (Hammel is the other) to start on Opening Day.

No one is saying it will be a rotation for the ages, but at least for the moment, Showalter has more options than openings.

That has to be considered progress.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read Peter Schmuck's blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Weed in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) at wbal.com.

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