|Jake Arrieta, 26, has been the Orioles' best pitcher of the young crop. (Getty Images)|
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The day I showed up to see the Orioles, they couldn't stop talking about Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman.
"You can see the future unfolding in front of us," the manager told me. "The cavalry is coming."
It hasn't happened yet, but I believe this group of O's pitchers will produce Likes, dislikes >>
The manager was Dave Trembley, and this visit was three springs ago. And it turns out Trembley left out a word:
The future, the one Trembley talked about back in 2009 in Fort Lauderdale, was unfolding slowly. The cavalry, with Arrieta, Matusz and Tillman, was coming slowly.
So slowly, that three years later, it's still not there.
Once again, Arrieta, Matusz and Tillman are having good springs. Still, you can't find anyone who has watched the Orioles and thinks the team is anywhere close to being ready to win.
Trembley is long gone, fired early in 2010. Buck Showalter is starting his second full season as Orioles manager, and any enthusiasm created by his good 57-game run at the end of 2010 seems long forgotten.
And any enthusiasm over how good Arrieta, Matusz and Tillman have looked seems tempered by the memory that we got excited about them before.
So this spring, no one is comparing the Orioles to the Rays, as then-Oriole (and ex-Ray) Aubrey Huff did in 2009. Showalter praises the young pitchers, but doesn't make the promises that Trembley once did.
"If they're going to bite, this year they're going to bite," Showalter said this week.
Arrieta, still only 26 years old, has been the Orioles' best pitcher. Matusz, a year after he had the worst ERA ever (10.69) for any pitcher allowed to make at least 10 starts, has his velocity back and has been the talk of the scouting community on Florida's west coast.
Sleeper ... Brian Matusz, SP: Believe it or not, Brian Matusz went 6-0 with a 1.57 ERA and a strikeout per inning over his final eight starts in 2010, which makes his dismal 2011 even harder to reconcile. But hey, Roy Halladay had a 10.64 ERA in 2000, and he turned out fine. So before you go overboard and suggest Matusz is a lost cause, think back to how the 2011 season began for him. He went down before it even started with an intercostal strain and when he returned, his velocity was the lowest it's ever been. He spent the rest of the season trying to regain his stuff, basically going through spring training while every other player was in midseason form, and by the time his velocity returned, it was September. This year, instead of falling behind, Matusz has committed himself to getting ahead by working out with Brady Anderson in the offseason. The 24-year-old may not win a rotation spot out of spring training, but given his talent, he'll be back soon enough.
Bust ... Adam Jones, OF: Funny how a subtle boost in homers, from 19 to 25, can change Fantasy owners' perception of a player. Adam Jones' "power breakthrough" had more to do with at-bats than anything else -- his slugging percentage was only nine points higher than his previous career high -- and yet the same people who previously rated him among the mediocre middle are drafting him alongside established five-category threats Shane Victorino and Shin-Soo Choo this year. Jones is no five-category threat. Granted, another step forward power-wise, which is at least possible for the 26-year-old, would help compensate for his shortcomings, but who's to say one will actually happen? Again, his percentages suggest he hasn't made any real progress over the last three seasons and as a player who strikes out 100 more times than he walks, he's always at risk for a collapse in batting average. As a third or fourth outfielder he's fine, but as a No. 2, Jones is better left for someone else. -- Scott White
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Tillman's fastball was clocked in the mid-90s the other day.
"I don't think there's been any misjudgment of talent," Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said. "But when you don't have an established rotation, the development process speeds up."
When you don't have enough starters, and you don't have much hope, you push guys. And when you push guys in the American League East, the failures can be spectacular.
"I think it takes a toll physically and mentally, and even with injuries," Trembley said this spring at Braves camp, where he works now. "It was too much too soon."
Tillman made it to the big leagues in 2009, when he was only 21 years old. He still hasn't made it through a full season in the big leagues.
"If you do well your whole career, you don't learn," Tillman said. "Last year is going to help me a lot. Last year was a bad year for all of us, kick us in the butt."
After last year, Tillman joined Matusz and Tommy Hunter (acquired from the Rangers in the Koji Uehara trade) in working out with Brady Anderson. Matusz started almost immediately after the end of the season, and Orioles people said he was dedicated in a way he never had been before.
In the past, Matusz had a reputation as a party animal, something he is said to have toned down now, at age 25.
There's no question that he's in better shape now than he was last spring, which may be why the velocity that disappeared in 2011 has reappeared in 2012.
"I know what he went through," Tillman said. "I know he never wants to do it again."
The Orioles still haven't guaranteed Matusz a rotation spot, although scouts following the team say they can't see how he would be left out. With not even two weeks left before opening day, Showalter still hadn't named any of his starters, but there was a strong expectation that Arrieta, Hunter, Jason Hammel (from the Jeremy Guthrie trade) and Wei-Yin Chen would be in the rotation.
Zach Britton, who was last year's Oriole pitching hope, has battled shoulder soreness this spring. It appears now that he's not seriously hurt, but he's unlikely to be ready opening day, which should make it easy to slot Matusz in instead.
Showalter believes that the Orioles have enough depth now that they won't need to push young pitchers too quickly.
"Last year, we had 'last man standing,'" he said.
Looking back, the Orioles may have pushed too fast, especially in contrast to the Rays, who always seem willing to give their young pitchers extra minor-league starts before calling them up.
Had the Orioles done that, maybe we'd be getting excited about these guys now, instead of wondering what's taking so long.
"It's way too early to panic [about Matusz]," ex-teammate Guthrie said this spring in Arizona. "He has to see how his stuff can overwhelm hitters. I was in Double-A at 25. He's got time to figure things out."
There are signs this spring that he's on the way. There are signs that Arrieta is progressing, too.
"I think Matusz will [get it figured out]," Trembley said this spring. "I think Arrieta will, too."
The cavalry may still show up for the Orioles. But they, and we, have stopped predicting when.