2012 burning question: Baltimore Orioles

Taken from my Orioles preview earlier today…

Burning Question
Can Baltimore’s rotation give the team a league average performance? The Orioles starters had a 5.39 ERA last year, which helped deep six their solid team OPS of .729. Baltimore also had some terrible defense, most of which came at the hands of Reynolds over at third base. If Baltimore’s rotation can cut a run off of that ERA, and Reynolds’s time in the field is minimized, then Baltimore can make some strides in 2012.

The Orioles rotation was hideous in 2011. Hideous might not even be a good enough descriptor. Horrendous? Maybe that’ll work a little better. Take a look at the statline for Baltimore’s starters last season.

46-72 record
881 innings pitched
5.96 strikeout rate
3.36 walk rate
1.37 homer rate
5.39 ERA
4.91 FIP
4.52 xFIP
5.7 fWAR

All of those numbers are among the worst in baseball. In fact, the highest ranking of all of those stats is strikeout rate, which the Orioles were 25th in the league in. 12 pitchers got starts for the team, nine of which ended up with ERAs over 5.00. Five of them were over 6.85. Yeah, this wasn’t a good crop of starters.

However, there’s been a bunch of turnover in the rotation. 48 of those starts are gone, as Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Jakubauskas, Rick VandenHurk, Mitch Atkins, and Jojo Reyes are no longer with the team. That’s still a huge chunk of starts that are with the team, though. Baltimore’s top starter from 2011, Zach Britton, had offseason shoulder surgery, and may not be ready to roll on Opening Day. He still hasn’t faced live hitting this spring, and the Orioles seem dedicated to making sure that his rehab goes correctly as opposed to quickly.

Reliever Alfredo Simon got 16 starts for the Orioles to go along with seven relief appearances, and functioned much better coming out of the pen. That would probably be the prime role for him. Tommy Hunter was ineffective after coming over at midseason, and seems destined for the bullpen or AAA. Chris Tillman will only be 24 in April, and has shown worlds of potential in the minors, but that hasn’t translated to the majors. Homers have been his absolute downfall in Baltimore. Another former top prospect, 26 year-old Jake Arrieta, has also struggled in the majors with command. Arrieta’s command was a question in the minors, but an adequate homer rate and a good strikeout rate dimmed the issue. Those two facets of his game have gone out of whack in the majors, and as a result, his control problems are coming to the forefront.

So how are the Orioles fixing their rotation issue? They’ve brought in new arms. From the Nippon League, Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei-Yin Chen are now with the club. Despite an 8-10 record, Chen threw 164 2/3 innings with 94 strikeouts and 31 walks. He’s not a strikeout artist at all, but has excellent control. Wada was a much more highly touted pitcher than Chen, throwing 184 2/3 innings, striking out 168 and walking just 40. Wada is the more experienced player, clocking in at 31 years-old, while Chen is just 26. The club also brought in Jason Hammel from the Rockies in the Jeremy Guthrie deal. The 29 year-old Hammel has developed into a solid back-end of the rotation starter with the Rockies, and will look to take those talents to Baltimore. Despite ERAs over 4.00 in each of his seasons in the mountains, Hammel showed good command and a great ability to strike hitters out in 2009 and 2010 before falling off a cliff in ability in 2011. If he’s able to reclaim that form, he should be able to help the team a lot.

The other two spots in the rotation will be filled by Baltimore’s cadre of prospects, including Tillman, Arrieta, Britton, and Brian Matsuz, who had a terrible 2011 after a great rookie year of 2010. The 25 year-old Matusz really couldn’t get into a groove in 2011, starting just 12 games in the majors due to injury and ineffectiveness, and posting a record-setting 10.69 ERA for the season. In his starts in AAA in 2011, Matusz was substantially better, starting nine games with a better than two to one strikeout to walk ratio and a 3.46 ERA. More importantly, he allowed just four homers in AAA after allowing a mind-blowing 18 during his time in the majors in 2011. Injuries were a likely culprit for Matusz’s struggles, with his average fastball velocity falling by three miles per hour from 2009 to 2011. If healthy and effective in 2012, Matusz alone should make Baltimore’s rotation substantially better.

Baltimore absolutely needs their starting rotation to improve in 2012 if they want to sniff 70 wins. This is an indisputable fact. An improvement from Matusz will be a crucial key to the development of the rotation, but the transition from Japan to America for Wada and Chen may be even more important to the team’s success this season. 

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Joe Lucia

About Joe Lucia

I'm the managing editor of Awful Announcing and the news editor of The Comeback. I also made The Outside Corner a thing for six seasons.