O's camp to feature plenty of pitching battles
Baltimore has several candidates for both rotation, bullpen
And while executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette is still actively looking for ways to upgrade the offense and help stabilize a lineup in need of a middle-of-the-order bat -- and without the power services of the departed Mark Reynolds -- the O's pitching has improved from a year ago.
Duquette's main agenda last winter was to stockpile pitching, and the Orioles, still in lieu of a true ace, have strength in numbers and a pair of talented young prospects in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman that could reach Baltimore by midseason.
With the calendar flip putting Spring Training just over a month away, one of the more interesting battles in Sarasota, Fla., will be how the Orioles fill out their rotation and keep together a bullpen responsible for a lot of the success in 2012. While Baltimore remains interested in bringing back free agent Joe Saunders -- who was acquired in an in-season trade with Arizona -- and could potentially sign another reliever or two, there's plenty of competition already on the roster.
Nineteen of the 39 players on the Orioles' current 40-man roster are pitchers, and 13 of them can be considered starters. That group can be pared down to nine considering left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada -- coming off Tommy John surgery -- won't be a full-go in camp and Bundy and Gausman, along with prospect Zach Clark, are long shots to make the Opening Day roster.
So, who will be part of the starting five come April 2?
Assuming there are no major injuries, Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen are locks for rotation spots, with Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman -- both of whom excelled in Baltimore last season -- also getting long looks. Gonzalez, who was in Minor League camp last spring, is coming off a fabulous rookie season in which he pitched to a 3.25 ERA in 18 games (15 starts), while the 24-year-old Tillman flourished after his July promotion and posted a 2.93 ERA in 15 games.
Should both Gonzalez and Tillman excel in camp and secure spots -- manager Buck Showalter is a big fan of competition and will probably shy away from publicly handing out jobs early in the spring -- things will get interesting for the fifth-starter race.
Last year's Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton will look to bounce back from uneven seasons, while Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz -- who both thrived after being moved to the bullpen -- will also show up to camp stretched out to start. Steve Johnson is coming off a fine rookie season, and Duquette didn't rule out Rule 5 Draft pick T.J. McFarland as a potential rotation candidate when the club selected him at the Winter Meetings.
All six of those pitchers could be moved full-time to the bullpen, although given the state of the Orioles' relief corps -- which is nearly intact from last season -- there isn't exactly a wealth of open spots. Closer Jim Johnson heads a group that includes Darren O'Day, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton and Pedro Strop, and Duquette could add another Major League arm or two in the next month, with Matusz and Hunter getting the edge among the current group of potential options.
Matusz pitched to a 1.35 ERA in 18 regular-season games, while Hunter lowered his ERA by two runs (5.71 compared to 3.71) out of the bullpen. The organization is also high on prospect Mike Belfiore, added to the 40-man roster this winter, who is coming off a successful season and was named to the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars team.
Part of the reason the Orioles have been hesitant to go out and lure a big-name, big-contract pitcher to Baltimore is that the organization remains hopeful Bundy and/or Gausman -- two of the best prospects in baseball -- can grow into that role, although it's certainly not out of the question that either come up in the bullpen first. Bundy made his Major League debut as a reliever, and Gausman, a college righty who is older and considered more polished, could join Patton in a 'pen that could be low on lefties -- depending on where Matusz ends up.
There is also the possibility that Duquette, who acquired Hammel and Chen late last winter, has a few moves left up his sleeve. The club has been active in trade talks, and while the emphasis is clearly on acquiring some offense, it wouldn't be out of the question for the Orioles to add pitching, particularly if they have to trade away some of their young arms to bring back a bat.