Baltimore Pitching is Ready to Fly

To begin the 2009 season, Baltimore Orioles fans were treated to a starting rotation that included the likes of Koji Uehara, Jeremy Guthrie, Mark Hendrickson, Adam Eaton, Rich Hill, and Alfredo Simon. There is no reason to ask why the club is in last place, 23 games out of first in the American League East.

Guthrie and Uehara have not been terrible. At the age of 30, Guthrie doesn’t really have any upside left but he’s developed into a fairly dependable No. 3 starter. He is exposed, though, if a club relies on him to be a No. 1 or 2 starter, which he’s been in Baltimore. Uehara, who came over from Japan prior to the 2009 season, has a torn flexor tendon in his elbow and hasn’t pitched since June. His numbers weren’t bad prior to the injury but the 34-year-old right-hander was pitching like a No. 4 starter.

As grim as the above information is, the future is extremely bright for the Orioles’ starting pitching staff. Fans in Baltimore have already been treated to the MLB debuts for the club’s top two pitching prospects: Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz. Both players have been roughed up a bit at times – mainly due to a lack of command – but their potential is evident. They project to fill in the top of the Orioles’ starting rotation for years to come.

Brad Bergesen has been a surprise contributor to the rotation this season as a rookie. The right-hander was flying under the radar of prospect watchers but he’s made 19 starts for the club and has allowed 126 hits in 123 innings of work. He has a solid ERA at 3.43, as well as a respectable FIP at 4.08. His walk rate is marvelous at 2.34 BB/9 but his strikeout rate is alarmingly low at 4.74 K/9. Bergesen, though, lives and dies by the ground ball and currently has a ground-ball rate of 50.1%. With a fastball that sits right around 89-90 mph, and a good slider, Bergesen, 23, could fill the No. 4 or 5 starter’s role for the Orioles for quite some time.

Like Bergesen, David Hernandez has also provided more innings for the club than expected in ’09. The right-hander has pitched reasonable well, although he’s been a little too hittable with 60 hits allowed in 52.1 innings of work. His walk rate is OK at 3.61 BB/9 but his strikeout rate is quite low at 4.82 K/9, especially considering that he was averaging K/9 rates of 9.50 to 11.00 in the minors. Hernandez is also an extreme fly-ball pitcher with a ground-ball rate of just 29.3%. His stuff is good, though, as he’s been average around 93 mph on the fastball and he also has a solid slider, and an OK changeup. He could battle Bergesen in the future for a back-of-the-rotation spot with the loser moving to the bullpen.

Rookie Jason Berken has made 14 starts with the Orioles but has an ERA of 6.72 (FIP of 5.01). He’s allowed 89 hits in 69.2 innings of work, while also posting rates of 3.49 BB/9 and 5.04 K/9. His ground-ball rate is just 38.1% and his line-drive rate is 24.2%. Berken is getting hit hard despite a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that averages 92 mph. The 25-year-old pitcher is probably best suited to bullpen work, but he could become a valuable swing pitcher.

The Orioles club still has two pitchers remaining in triple-A and double-A who should both settle into the MLB rotation within the next year: Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe. Matusz jumped over Arrieta after the latter pitcher hit a three-start rough patch in triple-A from July 24-Aug. 3. The right-hander dominated high-A and double-A, but he’s struggled a bit with consistency in triple-A. Regardless, the 23-year-old pitcher has all the potential necessary to be a very good No. 3 starter in the Majors, including low-to-mid-90s fastball, slider, curve and changeup.

Erbe has gotten lost in the shuffle a bit because of a rough 2007 at high-A ball (although he was just 19 years of age at the time). Now 21, the right-hander has been slowed by some injuries this season but he’s been dominant as of late. In his last start against the Jays’ double-A affiliate, he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. On the season, he has allowed 29 hits in 47.2 innings of work. He also has a walk rate of 3.97 BB/9 and a strikeout rate of 7.55 K/9. Both those rates will surely improve once he gains better command of his pitches, which include a low-to-mid-90s fastball, a plus slider and an OK changeup. Right-handed batters are hitting just .138 against him.

If all goes well, the Orioles rotation could eventually stack up like this:
1. Chris Tillman, RHP, age 21
2. Brian Matusz, LHP, 22
3. Brandon Erbe, RHP, 21
4. Jake Arrieta, RHP, 23
5. Brad Bergesen, RHP, 23

6. David Hernandez, RHP, 24
7. Jason Berken, RHP, 25

For fantasy baseball managers, the Baltimore Orioles’ pitching depth offers some very intriguing options in keeper leagues. For Orioles fans, the above depth chart is exciting news after enduring a very ugly April.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospect analysis. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

9 Responses to “Baltimore Pitching is Ready to Fly”

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  1. Davidceisen says:

    If Koji Uehara can stay healthy, he isn’t exactly shabby either. I imagine he will be part of the opening rotation next season. Guthrie hasn’t been bad in the previous two seasons either, but he might be the odd man out next year. Do they offer him arbitration?

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  2. Drew M says:

    Great article. Thanks for showing the O’s a little love.

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  3. Marc Hulet says:

    I’d say that Uehara is great insurance, if healthy, until all the rookie pitchers are ready to contribute on a full-time basis. Uehara is 34, so he won’t pitch at a high level for much longer (1-2 seasons?).

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    • Corey says:

      Koji has already been moved to the pen and I think you can expect him to stay there next season. He’s looked good as a starter but due to his age and stamina concerns (he loses it after 80-85 pitches) and his fragility, he belongs in the pen, where he could really excel.

      Koji should start 2010 as our closer, build up his value a la Flat Breezy then trade him at the deadline.

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  4. OsandRoayals says:

    Uehara has been good for the first 5 innings, but becomes extremely homer-prone as he fatigues. This may be due to his fore-mentioned arm injury or very likely due to his spring training being shortened. Probably a combination of both

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  5. Chris says:

    Uehara in long relief would be a great way to help manage the pitch counts for these guys.

    I think keeping Guthrie around after arbitration would be wise. Veteran leadership counts for a lot, especially when you’re mentioning seven pitchers under the age of 25.

    Any free agent starters they might pick up next year? The names I’m looking at are either too good (Lackey, Lee, Webb) or too bad (Cabrera, Ponson, Benson. Hum!)

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  6. Ray says:

    So with all this in mind, if the O’s open the 2010 season with a rotation of Guthrie – Uehara – Tillman – Matusz – Bergesen, and work in Arrieta and Erbe as the seasons wears on, do the make the AL East a 4 team race, or are they still a year away from competing with the Big Three? With an OF full of guys who continue to improve, a catcher who could be the best in the game this time next year and an infield full of quality veterans I think they could at least get within shouting distance next season.

    As a Red Sox fan that both excites and scares me.

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  7. Tim S. says:

    The peak years of these young pitchers are probably years away, and they won’t all hit their upside scenarios, either. It’s great to see the youngsters and to finally have some hope for the future. But the idea that these 23-year olds will lead the Orioles to contention in 2010 is still pretty far-fetched.

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  8. Mike says:

    Could someone explain why David Hernandez is being projected as a #4/5 starter while Tillman and Matusz project as 1/2? Before he came up, I had heard that he got by with fringe stuff, but he has actually thrown harder (92.9mph) than both in his time in the majors. His minor league numbers leave very little to complain about, what with consistent K/9 of about 10 and good control outside of a blip at AA in 2008. Is it explained entirely by his age? Is there some issue with his secondary stuff? As an O’s fan, I am trying to figure out why I shouldn’t be excited about this guy.

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