Monday, March 23, 2009

Cringing at the Orioles' Starting Rotation

The vast improvement of the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league system brings much hope for an organization trying to break a string of 11-straight losing seasons and return to contention in the cutthroat American League East.

However, two decisions made over the weekend signal a harsh reality of the present, and the need for more patience as the organization waits for its bumper crop of starting pitching to mature in the minor leagues.

The Orioles optioned pitcher Brad Bergesen to Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday despite the young right-hander being one of the biggest surprises of spring training.

Bergesen pitched 11 2/3 innings with a 3.09 ERA and 11 strikeouts, launching himself into consideration for a starting rotation spot before being demoted.

President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail has been assertive in stating the club’s approach in taking its time to promote their young pitchers, wanting them to gain experience at each level before being promoted to Baltimore.

This certainly makes sense, considering Bergesen has never pitched above Double-A Bowie. Manager Dave Trembley wants the young pitcher to improve his changeup and his ability to retire left-handed hitters before making his debut in Baltimore.

Trembley told reporters that Bergesen would be one of the top candidates for a promotion in the early stages of the season.

While the decision to option Bergesen is disappointing to those wanting to see the Orioles’ core of promising pitchers, it makes sense considering other young pitchers such as Hayden Penn and Brian Bass are out of options and would have to pass through waivers before being sent to Norfolk.

The Orioles are not playing for 2009, so it makes little sense to rush any of their top pitching prospects, especially when you have these young placeholders at the major league level that could improve their value for potential trades in the future.

This would be a logical plan, but another decision made by Trembley over the weekend raises more concern about the present state of the club.

Still vying for a spot in the starting rotation, Penn was scheduled to start on Sunday before rain postponed Saturday’s game. Instead of skipping veteran Mark Hendrickson’s scheduled Saturday start, Trembley started Hendrickson and bumped Penn into a relief role in which he pitched only two innings.

While the oft-injured Penn, 24, has lost the top-prospect status he enjoyed a few seasons ago, the club needs to give him and fellow young pitcher Brian Bass every opportunity to earn a spot in the starting rotation.

Skipping Penn for a veteran swingman like Hendrickson fails to provide that opportunity and does nothing for the club’s future.

Penn may not be a long-term solution in the starting rotation, but certainly provides more upside than veterans Adam Eaton and Danys Baez. The veterans have started a combined six games compared to none for Penn. Trembley has given Bass two starts this spring.

Eaton and Baez may provide the veteran presence Trembley likes on his club, but they do not provide a productive presence.

Eaton has failed to post an ERA below 5.00 since 2005 and was released by the Phillies before signing a minor league contract with the Orioles. Baez is returning from Tommy John surgery in 2008 and posted a 6.44 ERA for the Orioles in 2007.

Why are these ineffective veterans receiving more opportunities than Penn? A veteran does little for a staff if he is being annihilated every five days.

If the Orioles need a reminder of how letting a former top prospect go before giving him a fair opportunity can backfire, they only need to look at John Maine, who after making eight starts in Baltimore in 2005, was traded to the Mets for Kris Benson. Maine won 15 games in 2007 and 10 in 2008 for New York.

How many wins did Kris Benson have with the Orioles again? Eleven? But he was a strong veteran presence, right?

Penn and Bass are relative unknowns at the major league level, but they do not have to perform at a high level to match what Eaton and Baez would contribute to the club, and could easily exceed the veterans’ projected performance.

The Orioles need to move away from this obsession with ineffective veteran pitchers at the expense of giving opportunities to younger pitchers.

While Penn and Bass are unlikely to stick beyond the next season or two, they certainly have a higher ceiling than veteran retreads with no trade value.

If Penn or Bass can perform better than expected, it would be a nice problem to have when the next group of young pitchers is ready for the major leagues. If they do not perform, you simply unload them and find another Baez or Eaton on the waiver wire.

Regardless of which five pitchers make the Opening Day rotation, the results will not be pretty. After ace Jeremy Guthrie, who would be a middle-of-the-rotation arm for a contending club, the Orioles will send out four unproven, if not ineffective, starters against the likes of the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees.

Though Koji Uehara created much excitement in spring training before going down with a hamstring injury, it is difficult to project how well the Japanese pitcher will perform against major league hitters. His lack of spring training innings further clouds the situation.

The team will receive another potential boost when lefty Rich Hill returns from injury and enters the rotation later in April. Pitching coach Rich Kranitz is trying to fix the former Cubs pitcher’s woes in hopes that he can return to his 2007 form.

Beyond these three, the best bet for tolerating the club’s starting rotation in the first half of 2009 is to close your eyes and think about August, when several of the organization’s young pitchers are projected to be ready for promotions.

The first wave could bring Bergesen, David Hernandez, and even two of the organization’s “Big Three," Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman.

Starting then, the Orioles will be able to move away from ineffective veterans and out-of-option projects and focus on developing a top-notch staff to compete in the AL East.

But until that happens, whether it’s young placeholders such as Penn and Bass, or veteran outcasts like Baez and Eaton, it figures to be a long couple of months in Baltimore.

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