This headline poses the question of the offseason, when it comes to pitching in Baltimore:
That's the _______ dollar question for the Orioles this year. They have some young arms who are very interesting, they have one of the great "never fulfilled his potential guys" in recent memory, and they have an extremely underrated pitcher in Bruce Chen filling out the back of that rotation (I'd probably pencil in Chen higher, but I'm just using MLB.com's wonderful depth charts).
The bullpen is a different story, but we'll get there.
1. Rodrigo Lopez: So the first thing I noticed when I took a look at a 3 year statline from Rodrigo Lopez was the dramatic dropoff in strikeouts (he's hovering around 5 per 9, which is pretty low). Then I wondered about fatigue.
Month K/PA April .187 May .105 June .144 July .139 August .127 Sept/Oct .079Lopez' K/PA wore down as the season progressed, generally, so I'm suspecting that either he was hiding an injury or he just was getting tired from the long haul of the season. Lopez relies on his control heavily, and he DOES have good control, but it's not good enough to only strike out 13% of the batters he faces.
Lopez is not an ace. Sorry folks. He should be good for a bunch of innings, though... league average would be nice.
2. Kris Benson: I wrote this when I was writing player comments about the Mets this offseason - "It's officially time to close the book on the "ace potential" label with Benson. He offered a teaser this year, too. During his first 16 starts, he posted a 3.14 ERA and looked good doing it (although a lot of that was from the BABIP). Life caught up to him fast, though; his last 12 starts saw a 5.58 ERA and just 4.2 K/9. Rob Neyer asked it last year, and he's completely right: what's the statute of limitations on an opinion? If Benson weren't a #1 overall draft pick ten years before, there is no way he gets $21 million."
Now that I think about it, though, and with hindsight being 20/20, the contract that "started" the overinflation of pitcher cost really doesn't look all that bad at this point. Benson's 4.13 ERA was the best he's put up in a full season since 2000, and, if there's a Mazzone miracle to be had, it might be here. I would not be surprised if Benson put up something similar in 2006, even with the league change (Camden Yards has been a big pitcher's park of late, even though it still has the lingering reputation of being a bandbox). The real question with Benson is his health. His shoulder kept him on the DL for the first month, and he wore down at the end of the season. I'll rephrase something I wrote in that article: if he gives you 200 league average innings, that's really not bad. But that's never a guarantee, and no one should expect more than that. An Oriole starting pitching trend, perhaps?
- Erik Bedard: Bedard did improve on basically everything between 2004 and 2005, and he's 27 years old now. His control is not an asset, but it's no longer crippling. His strikeouts increased by a lot more than his K/9 would indicate; realize that Bedard was facing fewer batters per inning because of the improved control. His best asset, by far, is his ability to keep the ball in the park. Aggregate minor league numbers don't tell us very much, but in 233 minor league innings, he gave up just 5 home runs. If you're looking at a minor league track record, though, you'll want to look at his 68.2 innings in AA back in 2002. He didn't give up any homers back then. That skill has translated, and it's one that makes him a candidate to be a very good pitcher. If he does stay healthy (he did just have Tommy John surgery a couple of years back, and he was hurt for parts of last year), he's as good a candidate as any for an "age-27 peak season."
- Daniel Cabrera: The Orioles would be advised to recognize that they DO have a AAA team. Cabrera jumped up from AA back in 2004, and he struggled mightily in the majors then. His pure stuff, though, translated into a bunch of strikeouts for the 24-year old last year; he fanned 157 in 161.1 innings. He's also an injury risk, but this guy is a thing of beauty if you're into scouting. He's 6'7", gets his fastball close to 100 mph and he has good movement. Cabrera's sort of the opposite of Lopez; his strikeouts were much higher in the second half than in the first. From July onward, he struck out guys at a 24.2% clip, which is much higher than the league average (which is around 15.8%). That bodes well. Keep an eye on Cabrera.
- Bruce Chen: The jokes about his frequent residential-changes don't get old, but, for a change, Bruce Chen stayed in one place. And he's back in that place, fresh off of his best season. Chen was a major beneficiary of BABIP, which was at .262. His strikeout rate was right around the league's average, and his control was acceptable. Chen's peripherals pin him as a pitcher who is a little below league average, but a guy like Chen can be useful with a good defense. And he's hard to root against. Another 3.63 ERA is unlikely, but Chen probably will have a job for another season. And he's finally getting compensated for all of those seasons in the minors with a nice, 1 year, $3.8 million deal. Save that cash, Mr. Chen. You've earned it.
If everything breaks well, this would be a very good rotation. Even though it won't break well, it should definitely improve from last year; Benson is a huge improvement over Ponson. It won't be enough to make them competitive in the AL East, but they're better than people will give them credit for, I think.
Chris Ray looks like he could be this year's "surprise closer" and "guy who proves that he can handle the close games in the clutch" and the newest entry into the Proven CloserTM category. Ray came up to the majors midway through the season, and he throws HEAT. In 40.2 innings, he struck out 43 guys with his high-90s fastball. I saw him pitch against the Red Sox, and he looked sharp, striking out Edgar Renteria and Bill Mueller. Prospectus' Team Health Report puts him as a "Red Light" in terms of injury risk. If you're into fantasy, draft him late... LaTroy Hawkins is also out there, and he's a useful example for people who believe that not very many players can stand up to the pressure of closing. But he's a darn good middle reliever. I think I've said that Cubs fans were ready to blame him for the Kennedy assassination(s) before he was traded, but he's still a guy you want in your bullpen (although he isn't cheap)... Who the hell is Tim Byrdak, you ask? Remember the name; he was a minor league journeyman who started striking out more than a batter an inning in 2004 and he translated that to the majors last year. He might give the O's some good innings this year, although the .351 BABIP worries me. He might be one of those hypothesized "hittable" minor league vets. We'll know more after this year... Todd Williams is kind of the opposite of Byrdak; he's not striking anyone out but he's still putting up good ERAs. He keeps the ball in the yard, which is a plus. Williams and Byrdak should be getting a lot of high-leverage innings this year... Eric DuBose might have another adequate 5th starter season in there somewhere, but it's hiding, that's for sure. He'll be spending '06 in the bullpen... I'll be honest: I have no idea who Franklin Gracesqui is. He put up an intriguing season in 2003 in AA-Carolina. Lots of strikeouts and no homers allowed, but damn, he has no control whatsoever. Cue the Troggs. Or Eric Burden.
Bottom line on the pitching: it'll be better than last year and the 91 ERA+. But it probably won't be all that much better than that, especially when dealing with 4 teams that are either better than they were last year or laden with future Hall of Famers at several positions. Good luck to the Orioles.