Heading into FanFest, Orioles excited about their pitching depth

A question mark heading into last season, team expects to have tough competition for starting spots this spring

January 18, 2013|By Eduardo A. Encina | The Baltimore Sun

Buck Showalter knows it's a good problem to have.

Biding time alone in his clubhouse office the past two months, the Orioles manager would look at the board wall that lists every player in the organization. In building for 2013 — and building off of the success of a trip to the playoffs last season — he can be happy that he sees pitching depth that didn't exist this time last season.

In executive vice president Dan Duquette's first offseason with the club, he focused on building the pitching staff. This offseason, a wealth of pitching allowed Duquette to dangle some arms as trade bait, although the Orioles have so far decided to keep their pitching and build on its strength.

As the Orioles host their annual FanFest on Saturday at the Baltimore Convention Center — an event that unofficially kicks of the buildup to baseball season locally — a franchise that quickly built itself into a winner in 2012 moves into spring training with a dramatically improved situation on the mound.

"There's going to be some tough calls," Showalter said. "But it's going to be for the right reasons. It's competitive with good people. That hasn't always been the case. It used to be last man standing."

Heading into spring training last season, the team had just traded No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie, leaving open spots throughout the starting rotation. Right-hander Jason Hammel and lefty Wei-Yin Chen were both newcomers, and it was uncertain what to expect from them.

The bullpen was rebuilt with the addition of new arms like Luis Ayala and Darren O'Day, and it would be the first time Jim Johnson served as full-time closer. But the bullpen's maneuverability — several relief arms pitched in different roles — made it a team strength, and its 3.00 ERA was the fifth best in baseball.

Now, the pitching staff returns almost entirely intact. The Orioles remain interested in re-signing late-season acquisition Joe Saunders, but they are confident some of their young arms can fill his spot.

Last season, right-hander Chris Tillman blossomed in the second half of the season after pitching in Triple-A for most of the season. Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, whom the team signed as a minor league free agent last March, also made a successful ascent from the minors. Rookie right-hander Steve Johnson contributed as a starter and reliever down the stretch.

"We've come a long way," said Tillman, who was a late-spring camp cut, but went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 big league starts after joining the Orioles in July. "I think we're a more confident group. I think we're a little more mature group. We know what we can do now, and I think it's up to us to definitely hold ourselves to the level we need to holds ourselves to. I think we all feed off each other. I think that's the fun part. We're all pushing each other to be just as good or better. We've got a good little thing going on right now."

This is the way Duquette planned it when he came on board last season, to build rich pitching depth that could serve the team for years to come.

"I like the pitching staff," Duquette said. "I like the stability we have in our pitching staff, starting with our bullpen, which was a strength of the team, and they're all coming back. They're a year older with more experience. We have some young pitchers who want to establish themselves as good, winning pitchers in the major leagues. We had a couple who came up last year in Tillman, Gonzalez and Stevie Johnson. Those guys pitched like top-of-the-rotation starters. They won over 20 games for us, and they were rookies last year.

"My experience with young players is, you can be surprised by how quickly they come to the big leagues and the contribution they make to the team, so I wouldn't lose sight of some of the good young players we have within our organization who could come up and have an impact on the team."

Duquette has also made it no secret that top pitching prospects Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, the organization's first-round picks the past two years, wait in the wings and could join the big league mix sooner than later. Bundy received a last-season big league call up last year to end his first pro season. And Gausman quickly moved up the ranks in his abbreviated first pro season, going from short-season Class A in early August to pitching in the Eastern League playoffs for Double-A Bowie.

"[Bundy] got up there so fast," Gausman said this week. "It's like you blink your eyes and the next thing you know, he was drafted the year before and now he's in the bigs. It's nice definitely knowing they want to get us up there and get us acclimated to being in the bigs. I think that's a part of Dylan being there was. They wanted him to get used to it. Seeing that is really exciting for me, because I'm in the same situation he was a year ago."

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