The Orioles have signed former Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens, who becomes the tenth realistic candidate for the Orioles' starting rotation. This depth is especially good news for one candidate, Brian Matusz. After a rapid rise to the major leagues and a promising debut, Matusz has struggled during the past two seasons. The Orioles' starting pitching depth may give Matusz a chance to get back on track without the pressure of being in a contending team's starting rotation.
To review, Matusz reached the major leagues in 2009, his first professional season. In 2010 he was in the Orioles' rotation the whole season, and pitched well, given that he was a pitcher in his second professional season and that the Orioles were a bad team. However, he missed the first two months of the 2011 season after he being injured in spring training. When he returned, he had one of the worst seasons ever by a pitcher — 12 starts, 49 2/3 innings, 1-9 record, and a 10.69 ERA. The Orioles hoped that his off-season was due to his injury, and he began 2012 in the Orioles' starting rotation. While his 2012 ERA was less than half of his 2011 ERA, that still wasn't very good, and he was sent down to Norfolk. Toward the end of the season, the addition of Joe Saunders settled the starting rotation somewhat. Matusz pitched out of the bullpen because the Orioles were hoping that he could help them as a left-handed spot relief pitcher.
Matusz has pitched for Norfolk in both 2011 and 2012 — he bypassed AAA on his initial surge to the big leagues — and I actually haven't seen Matusz pitch very often. I saw him make two starts at Norfolk in 2011, one during his rehab from the spring-training injury and one later in the season when he was trying to recapture his form. By chance, I didn't see him make a start at Norfolk in 2012, and I saw him make only two relief appearances.
The first 2011 game in which I saw Matusz pitch was his rehab start on May 27, against Columbus. Matusz pitched five innings plus two batters, giving up one run on four hits and one walk, with seven strikeouts. Although his line resulted in a game score of 61, he didn't pass the eye test. He fell behind eleven of the nineteen batters he faced and of his 84 pitches 28 were fouled off.
The second 2011 game in which I saw Matusz pitch was August 6, against Rochester, after he had struggled in Baltimore. Given a 7-0 lead after two innings, Matusz went seven, giving up one run on five hits and two walks, striking out 6. His game score was 67. Matusz pitched well, although it's hard to tell how much was Matusz and how much was Rochester giving up. When Norfolk took a 9-1 lead after the fifth inning, Matusz retired six straight Rochester batters in the sixth and seventh, using only 23 pitches.
The first 2012 game in which I saw Matusz pitch was August 15, against Gwinnett. Gwinnett's starting pitcher in that game was the newly-signed Oriole Jair Jurrjens, who left in the third inning with an injury. Matusz entered the game in the top of the seventh with a 5-0 lead. In the seventh, he struck out the side while allowing a run on a walk and two singles. In the eighth, he walked the leadoff batter on five pitches before retiring the next three batters on six pitches. In the ninth, he retired the first two batters, gave up a run on two singles and a double, and finally getting the third out on a fly ball to the warning track. By pitching three innings and preserving a lead, Matusz earned a save, becoming one of the fifteen Tides' pitchers to earn a save.
The second and final 2012 game in which I saw Matusz pitch was August 19, against Charlotte. Matusz entered the game with two out in the top of the seventh. The Orioles had a 4-2 lead, but Charlotte had runners on first and second. Matusz retired Jordan Danks on a fly ball. Matusz stayed in to pitch the eighth and surrendered the lead, on a walk, single, balk, wild pitch, and single. Zach Phillips relieved him with the score 4-4. Phillips got the last out of the eighth and then was credited with the win when Ryan Flaherty homered in the bottom of the inning.
Although he has been regarded as a top prospect, I haven't been very impressed with the games I've seen him pitch. Even when he's pitched well, he didn't have an overpowering fastball and his command was far from perfect. I still can't write Brian Matusz off; here's an example of where limited observations may be misleading. He was so good a prospect, and so promising in his first season-and-a-third, that I think there's still a good pitcher there. I am confident in saying that if he'll be a significant pitcher, it will be as a starting pitcher, and not as a closer. He's got starting pitcher stuff, not relief ace stuff.
And this is where Jair Jurrjens — and the rest of the Orioles starting pitchers — come in. With ten realistic candidates for the starting rotation, the Orioles will have the luxury of starting Matusz in the bullpen or in the Norfolk rotation. If Matusz does, in fact, have the ability to be a good pitcher, he'll have the chance to rebuild his confidence in low-pressure environments. If he does earn a spot in the Orioles bullpen, he can still mature into a good starting pitcher. There have been many successful starting pitchers, especially left-handed pitchers, who pitched in the bullpen for a time at the start of his career; Jimmy Key, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, and Darren Oliver are all examples. If Matusz is to have a successful pitching career, and the Orioles are to get something out of him, I think Matusz should pitch a season in the bullpen and get another shot at the rotation in 2014, or start the season in the Norfolk rotation.