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Taking swings at the Orioles' pitching staff

I'll briefly interrupt the psycho-profiling series to address a recent chorus of criticism in the print media about the Orioles' pitching woes. No fewer than four columns have addressed the issue in the last four days:

The outcry came in the wake of the Orioles' six-game losing slide of the past week, particularly the three taterrific Yankee games in which the Orioles allowed 41 runs to the Bronx Bombers. The pitching slump eased during a three-game sweep of the Tigers this weekend, but with a game tomorrow in Boston immediately followed by a three-game set in New York, it looks like it may be another long week ahead.

Of the four writers, Loverro was by far the most scathing. He took several shots at the Orioles' brain trust for going with such an inexperienced starting rotation, leading to a pitching situation that is "in chaos." Loverro compares the 2004 O's to the 2003 Texas Rangers, a team that was undone by its league-worst pitching. He includes this bon mot as a word of advice to manager Lee Mazzilli: “It might be a good idea to have a few choices words [sic] for your team, and particularly Sir Sidney Ponson, who clearly misunderstands the role of being the No. 1 guy on the staff. It doesn't mean the guy with the highest ERA on the staff.”

Boswell did not dwell as much on the Orioles' pitching problems in his column; he saw the losing string as the first big test for Mazzilli in his first season as a big-league manager. Boswell tried to avoid convenient second-guessing, but he did make one concrete recommendation about the pitching staff. He wrote, “Mazzilli should reverse one decision quickly: Send Rodrigo Lopez back to the bullpen, where he was becoming a star. That's probably the only significant mistake Mazzilli has made.”

Connolly, in his Friday column, turned up the pressure on the Orioles to deal one of their second basemen to fill holes on the team, particularly in the starting rotation: “A trade seems essential if the club is serious about playing competitive baseball this season. Heck, a trade is essential if the club wants its relievers to last through July.”

Schmuck, in his Sunday Orioles Focus column, agreed with Boswell's point about López and echoed Connolly's suggestion to deal a second baseman:

[López] certainly earned the chance to start again when Matt Riley came up sore and Kurt Ainsworth came unglued. It just wasn't the best thing for the team, and now it should be obvious to all that he needs to go back to the bullpen as soon as possible.

.... The first step toward addressing the pitching crisis and restoring the continuity of the batting order is pretty obvious. The Orioles need to make a deal. They need to trade Hairston as quickly as possible for a veteran starting pitcher who can get into the sixth inning and allow Lopez to return to the middle relief role he filled so well.

That might also require the club to give up a quality pitching prospect, something Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan don't want to do, but something dynamic has to be done before this turns into a seventh straight lost season.

The sky is falling! Give me the head of ___! Don't just stand there—do something!

In evaluating the Orioles' stumbles, Schmuck's central assertion is that "the 2004 season started to unravel when the club began fixing all the things that weren't broken." But in the Orioles' defense, there was and is no easy solution for the second-base logjam. Although playing Hairston at DH hampers the club in the short term, he needs at-bats to get his swing back and convince other teams that he has fully recovered from his injuries of the last two years. The Orioles have also been able to spot him a couple of starts in the outfield to increase his utility while they examine possible trade avenues. Hairston's weak start and Roberts's slump have especially smarted during a time in which the Orioles have faced several challenging opponents, but there is no concrete evidence that their offensive struggles have been caused by the uncertainty of their situation. While the Orioles have not turned lemons into lemonade, they have not mishandled the situation either.

Likewise, López's move into the rotation was not an easy decision; it was warranted because of the struggles and injuries of Riley and Ainsworth. After two starts, it's too soon to conclude that the best place for López is in the bullpen—even good pitchers can have two bad starts in a row. But Riley is apparently healthy enough to return after his four perfect innings for Ottawa on Saturday, and he clearly did not adapt well to relieving earlier this month. So the best move for the team may be to send López back to his long relief role.

Swing and a miss

I agree that the Orioles' pitching and second-base situations need to be fixed, but the club should avoid making a premature move that jeopardizes the possibility of the team's success in the long run. The Denny Bautista call-up was one such move—his Double-A numbers did not indicate that he was ready for the majors, his two outings against the Yankees confirmed that, and the Orioles admitted their mistake and optioned him back to Bowie. (It bothers me that Bautista is so often mentioned in association with his buddy Pedro Martínez. It's true that Bautista has an ectomorphic body type and electric fastball reminiscent of Pedro in his twenties, but unless Bautista develops Pedro's changeup and control, I see no good reason to compare them.)

Eddy Rodríguez was called up from Ottawa to fill Bautista's place in the Orioles' bullpen. Rodríguez, while less heralded as a prospect, is a better fit for the Orioles right now because he has had more success at a higher level than Bautista, has exhibited good command of his pitches (just nine walks in 27 2/3 Triple-A innings), and is accustomed to the job of relieving.

Wait for the right pitch

The problem with the trade-a-second-baseman-get-a-pitcher route, as I see it, is that reliable starting pitching is scarce these days, and no team has a surplus in that area from which to trade. Even the Cubs found their depth tested when Prior and Wood went down to injury. Contenders like the Cubs, Yankees, or Cardinals would be foolish to exchange a decent starting pitcher straight up for one of the Orioles' second basemen; Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts are average or slightly above par at their position, not stars.

So unless a second-division club is looking to unload an expensive veteran pitcher or the Orioles are willing to package another significant player in the deal, it's unlikely that they would be able to procure a starter significantly better than any they have now. And if a team tries to finagle a top prospect like John Maine in the trade, then forget it. There's no sense giving up a future star for a band-aid in the quixotic desire to contend today.

Not that the Orioles should stop answering the phone. Few trades of consequence are made in the first two months of the season. In June and July, enough games have been played that the strengths and faults of teams become clearer, and teams start looking to make changes where needed. But only when a need becomes dire, and all solutions from within the organization have been exhausted, will a club become motivated enough to get serious about bartering. Contenders looking to prime their rosters for the postseason will also pursue trades more vigorously, particularly near the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and the postseason roster finalization deadline of August 31.

Need to find a way, but not just for today

Baltimore's pitching has been wildly inconsistent (and I do mean wildly) this year, and the front office was fully aware that there would be growing pains. They specifically brought back Sidney Ponson to provide some consistency. But Ponson's struggles have only exacerbated the situation. Ponson is likely to lower his 6.09 ERA before the year ends, but he would be the third- or fourth-best starter on most contending teams.

Improvement can and should be expected out of the young pitchers over the course of the season, particularly in the walks column. Pitchers cannot expect to succeed when they issue five or six free passes per nine innings, as the Orioles' young hurlers have done. Some of them will have to realize this and reduce their walk rates accordingly or risk losing their jobs. A lot of the burden falls on pitching coach Mark Wiley to help the pitchers internalize the importance of commanding the strike zone, as the team's walk rate of 4.7 BB/9 ranks last in the majors.

Oriole walk rates per nine innings
as of May 30, 2004
Pitcher BB/9

The Orioles should take the realistic view that their best chances of contending are not this year, but next year and the years after that. The second-base situation is a temporary inconvenience, and solving it will not cure the team's lack of offense from their outfielders. Acquiring one good pitcher may help the staff today, but it will not put the Birds on a level with Boston and New York. Until the right deal comes along, the Orioles' best bet is to help their existing pitchers learn the ropes as quickly as possible. No matter how painful the present circumstances, no matter how bitterly frustrated fans complain about not being able to beat the Yankees, the Orioles' decisions should be made with an eye on their goal of success over the long term.

Clarification and correction: In the original version of this article, I wrote that the non-waiver trade deadline was August 1 and the "waiver" trade deadline was September 1. To clarify, the non-waiver deadline (at the time of this article's writing) was midnight August 1 Eastern Time, meaning that July 31 was the last day to make trades without passing players through waivers. There was and is no deadline for trading players who pass through waivers, although players must be on active rosters on August 31 to be eligible for the postseason.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 30, 2004 11:02 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Inside the Orioles' heads, part 2.

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