Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta were once seen… (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore…)
It's late November and all is relatively quiet on the Orioles front, which has got to be frustrating for a still-wary fan base that has watched the Toronto Blue Jays undergo a startling competitive transformation over the past few weeks and knows that the checkbooks will be coming out in New York and Boston any minute now.
There's no need for alarm, at least not yet. This is pretty much standard operating procedure for baseball operations chief Dan Duquette, who had us all scratching our heads at last year's winter meetings with his seemingly deliberate and small-time attempt to upgrade the pitching staff, then pulled off a series of acquisitions and deals that helped propel the Orioles to their first playoff appearance in 15 years.
He didn't sign any $100 million free agents and probably won't this year either. He plugged the right holes and undoubtedly is busy trying to get into position to do the same thing again, but first things first.
The Orioles have less than a week to decide what to do about first baseman Mark Reynolds, who is the key variable in the club's offseason plan. If he is offered salary arbitration or re-signed by the Nov. 30 contract tender deadline, Duquette presumably will put increased emphasis on upgrading the pitching staff and addressing the uncertain situation in left field.
The good news, of course, is that this year is nothing like last year, when the Orioles were reeling from another last-place finish and wondering if their latest attempt to grow a starting rotation would ever bear fruit.
Since then, Duquette has assembled enough pitching depth that the club actually has a surplus of young starters and appears willing to deal one or two of them for a solid position guy to play first base or left field, depending on the outcome of negotiations with Reynolds and free agent outfielder Nate McLouth.
The Orioles will go into spring training with at least three starters — Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez — who are all but certain to be in the regular season rotation if healthy and as many as eight candidates for the other two slots.
Duquette is believed to still be interested in re-signing free agent veteran Joe Saunders, which could make the roster very crowded with pitching phenoms Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman waiting in the wings, Tsuyoshi Wada hoping to return from Tommy John surgery early in the 2013 season and the nucleus of the last pitching youth movement still in play.
It's hard to believe, but the Orioles actually have too many starting pitchers to sort through next spring, so you're going to be hearing a lot of whispers before and during the upcoming winter meetings in Nashville about the availability of Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton — four young pitchers who once were considered almost untouchable by the Orioles front office.
They are all still very talented. They are all still very cheap. They all still are perceived to have a lot of upside. And, it would be a big surprise if one or two of them are not getting fitted for a different uniform in the next couple of months.
The Orioles should be able to package just about any one of them with a decent position prospect to get an up-and-coming first baseman or outfielder. Maybe somebody like Mariners slugger Justin Smoak or Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who could be available after disappointing 2012 seasons. If they don't end up needing a first baseman, they can make a similar play for an outfielder, or even another solid veteran starting pitcher.
It all comes down to the eye of the beholder. There is a team out there that believes a couple of subtle adjustments will allow Matusz or Arrieta to fulfil their potential and become highly productive starting pitchers. There are talent evaluators who believe that Tillman finally figured things out during his terrific second half of the 2012 season. There are others who consider Britton — with his plus velocity and nasty sinker — the best of the bunch.
There are also those in the Orioles player development department who are — quite rightfully — reluctant to give up on any of them, but that's why they still have value. Of those four, it's hard to imagine them dealing Tillman after waiting all this time for him to bloom, but you generally have to give up something good to get better.
Club officials have been talking for years about the importance of building a foundation of talent sturdy enough to allow for them to trade quality players to fill in the blanks on the 25-man roster. Now, they are in that position and it would be a crime if they didn't take advantage of the opportunity.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app