At potential turning point for O's, depth could pay off

May 09, 2012|Peter Schmuck

On the heels of one of the most uplifting road trips in recent memory, the Orioles suddenly find themselves at their first critical juncture of the young season, but here's the reason that it might not suck all the wind out of their terrific start:

For once, they weren't blindsided by it.

Two bullpen-busting marathons in Boston forced the front office to make a series of roster moves this week, and the struggles of starters Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta have seriously clouded the outlook for the upcoming weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles entered Wednesday night's game against the Texas Rangers still leading the American League in team ERA (3.21), but they'll need some help from below to stay on top.

Manager Buck Showalter acknowledges that there are some challenges ahead, but he isn't ready to call the situation critical.

"You can make that case, but I think that's just part of the job description,'' he said during his pregame news briefing Tuesday. "It's going to happen to every team. It happened to New York, Boston and Toronto a little bit. This is not a normal job with what you do to your body. You're going to have issues during the season. You have to handle them. We've already handled some of them quietly … and it's not all always the pitching."

In this case, however, it is. The O's had to play musical relievers while they rested up after Sunday's surreal 17-innning victory over the Red Sox, and they're probably going to reach down to Norfolk and bring up journeyman Dana Eveland to fill the Friday slot vacated by Hunter when he was sent out Monday.

This is the kind of thing they were doing from Day One in 2011, but Showalter and new baseball operations chief Dan Duquette have spent the winter and spring trying to make sure there are enough real options in the minor league system to get the club through rough patches like this one.

The lack of adequate depth in 2011 was exposed in a hurry when Matusz was forced onto the disabled list the day before the season opener and the Orioles had to rush top Triple-A prospect Zach Britton into the major league rotation. He held a place in the rotation for much of the year, but there wasn't much left at Triple-A when the club needed to fill some other gaps in the rotation and the bullpen.

"It's part of the reason we made some trades and acquisitions,'' Showalter said. "You're going to have peaks and valleys in every season and we're trying to minimize the valleys. I think the teams that have good years minimize those valleys."

There were times when it was hard to decipher what Duquette was doing. There was a huge collective yawn from the fans and the media when he acquired Eveland during the Winter Meetings in December. There was more head-scratching as he packed the spring training roster with free agent remainders. There were even skeptics when he traded No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie for unproven Jason Hammel and hard-throwing reliever Matt Lindstrom.

The individual outcomes were mixed, but the Orioles emerged with a much deeper bullpen and a much more experienced group of fallback starters in the minor leagues. Now, it's time to find out if the front office did enough to get the team past its first significant pitching setback.

If the fans are still wondering, the players seem confident that there is enough talent in the organization to keep the team afloat in a crisis.

"I think you can look at what we've done over the offseason to put together enough depth to where you're going to be prepared for those situations," said catcher Matt Wieters. "We're going to have guys coming up and down all year. Everybody who comes up is going to have to step up and pitch like they can, and we know that with the depth that we have, we have players who have the ability to do that. We have guys down there that have big league experience. That's one of the main things."

Closer Jim Johnson agrees. He spent a lot of spring training recovering from a lower back problem, but he watched the rest of the bullpen come together and saw how much pitching the club was able to keep in reserve.

"The key word is depth," Johnson said. "It wasn't like we were going to go the whole season without any changes. We've had some unfortunate injuries and some unfortunate things happen, but we are able to replace them with guys who can come in and fit right in seamlessly. It says a lot about the depth we have in the organization."

Now, it's time to start finding out if that depth can speak for itself.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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