08 January 2014

Failures of Former Orioles' Cavalries and Hope in the Current One

The arms are coming.  Once they arrive in Baltimore, everything is going to work out.  The team has a solid offensive core that can be complemented with a few trades and some minor free agent pickups.  That core will be there when the cavalry comes.

The sentiment has been expressed four times in the past 20 years.  This time, the hope is being placed on Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Hunter Harvey.  Depending on who you follow for prospecting, Bundy or Gausman is considered the best pitching prospect in the system.  They are both arguably top ten prospects.  Also, depending on your resource, Rodriguez and Harvey could be considered top 50 arms. 

As such, this is probably the most well regarded group of pitching prospects that the Orioles have ever had in the past 20 years.  As mentioned in an earlier post, prospects more often than not flame out.  This is well understood by many an Orioles fan as we will explore in this post.  We'll review the cavalries of 1996, 2004, and the period of 2008 to 2010.

Rocky Coppinger 19 (Baseball America Ranking)
Jimmy Haynes 38
Billy Percibal 99
In 1996, Orioles fans for the most part did not really know much about their stable of arms.  If they did, they would have known that Rocky Coppinger was one of the better arms in the 1993 draft.  He was considered largely unsignable and the Orioles selected him in the 19th round as a draft and follow.  He had a heavy fastball that sat in the low 90s and a plus slider.  After a solid Spring at Hill JuCo, the Orioles signed him at the deadline just before the 1994 draft.

With two plus pitches, Coppinger tore apart Bluefield in 1994.  He then started out well in Frederick, dominating the league in 11 starts.  The Orioles then aggressively promoted the 21 year old to Bowie and then on to Rochester where he saw a great deal of success.  It is much remembered that Syd Thrift referred to him as "colt who could become a horse."  It was one of those quaint Thrift-isms when Thrift was not a dirty word in Baltimore, but one that made one remember the player development system of the powerhouse Pittsburgh Pirates.  Times have changed.  Anyway, Coppinger performed well. 

Rocky Coppinger Statistics Going into 1996 Spring Training
Year Age Tm Lg Lev W L W-L% ERA GS SHO IP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
1994 20 Bluefield APPY Rk 4 3 .571 2.45 13 0 73.1 6.3 0.6 4.9 10.8
1995 21 Frederick CARL A+ 7 1 .875 1.57 11 1 68.2 6.0 0.4 3.1 11.9
1995 21 Bowie EL AA 6 2 .750 2.69 13 2 83.2 6.2 0.8 4.6 6.7
1995 21 Rochester IL AAA 3 0 1.000 1.04 5 0 34.2 6.0 0.5 4.4 4.9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/6/2014.

Nowadays, we would still see someone with a very promising career based on that performance.  However, there would be some concern that he was quite lucky in AA and AAA.  He had a high walk rate and his strikeouts evaporated.  Further analysis would show that he was a wild pitcher whose change up was nearly worthless, making him a platoon pitcher.  Unfortunately, his performance masked these red flags and much was expected of him as he entered 1996 Spring Training as the favorite to be the fifth pitcher behind Mike Mussina, David Wells, Scott Erickson, and Kent Mercker.

Competing against Coppinger was another arm held in high regard, Jimmy Haynes.  Haynes was drafted in 1991 out of high school.  He performed well at every level and the Orioles were very patient with his development.  His fastball was more of a show me pitch as he tended to dispatch minor leaguers with his curve, slurve, and changeup.  It was another prospect profile where questions should have been raised as to whether he would be able to get through a MLB lineup without a legitimate fastball.  Hopes of him being Plan B were raised as a September callup in 1995 saw him with 22 strikeouts in 24 IP and a 2.25 ERA.

In Spring Training, Coppinger struggled with his control and with left handers.  Haynes performed well against uneven competition and wound up securing the fifth spot in the rotation.  Haynes found himself quickly in trouble.  The Orioles chose to try Arthur Rhodes and Rick Krivda out to try to find a solution to their starting pitching troubles.  Eventually, the slot was handed outright to Krivda.  Later, Mercker was sent off and Coppinger, not Haynes, was placed into the rotation.

Where they wound up?
Rocky Coppinger - Over the next three years, Coppinger bounced up and down between Baltimore and Rochester as he could not figure out how to handle his wildness and, more importantly, left handed batters.  In 1999, he was dealt to the Brewers for a player to be named later who was Alberto Reyes.  They used him as a relief pitcher to handle right handed sides, a role in which he excelled until he blew his elbow out and Tommy John surgery was not successful.  Reyes was in Baltimore for parts of two seasons and was rather mediocre.  He was dealt in 2000 to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Alan Mills, who could no longer get out MLB hitters.

Jimmy Haynes - Haynes never wore an Orioles uniform after 1996.  He played half of the year in the minors until he was dealt to the Athletics for the overachieving Geronimo Berroa.  Haynes bounced around occasionally performing as a decent back end arm before washing out as a 31 year old in Cincinatti.

Billy Percibal- An unfortunate arm injury ended Percibal's 1996 minor league season although he was added to the 40 man roster and spent five days in Baltimore even though he could not pitch.  After a year off rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Percibal was not the same pitcher.  What has happened to him since, I do not know.  He seems to have disappeared except for the story where Peter Angelos intervened and was able to get Percibal's infant son desperately needed emergency care in the Dominican Republic.

Adam Loewen 13
John Maine 54
Denny Bautista 59
At this point and time, Adam Loewen was a great ball of potential.  The previous season, he dominated short season A ball as a nineteen year old.  Injuries, mechanics, and wildness had yet to be concerns.  All scouts were seeing at this point were his pitches.  The questions would come later.  Those issues would eventually end a very promising pitching career and turn Loewen into a fringe fifth outfielder.

During Spring Training, Maine, an Orioles product, and Bautista, a Marlins product acquired for Jeff Conine the year prior, were seen as promising pitchers threatening to disrupt the team's plan of pairing ace Sidney Ponson with Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez, and Matt Riley.  Neither were able to beat out the starting five.  Though, Lopez was knocked into the bullpen by a resurgent former top prospect by the name of Erik Bedard.  Maine and Bautista found themselves in Bowie.  As Ainsworth, Riley, and Dubose faltered, Lopez was pushed into the rotation and another AA pitcher, Daniel Cabrera was promoted in their place.

Bautista was given a couple relief appearances in June before the team confused everyone and traded him for an aging middle relief arm, Jason Grimsley of Mitchell Report fame.  Maine earned a July start and was promptly throttled.  He was sent back down and never saw Batimore again in 2004.  Loewen?  He wound up being shut down and having surgery on his labrum.

Where Did They Wind Up?
Adam Loewen - Loewen would show a great deal of promise and he eventually matured into a pitcher with ace quality ability.  However, that ability was rarely seen in game as he suffered yearly arm injuries.  In 2008, the Orioles released Loewen with the understanding that he would resign and try to be a position player with the team.  He was caught off guard when a team from his home country, the Toronto Blue Jays, expressed interest in him.  As a free agent he chose to go home.  Since then, he has shown some power for the Jays, Mets, and Team Canada teams.  His only MLB experience as a batter came with the Blue Jays.  He did not perform well.

John Maine - As a fly ball, soft tossing pitcher, Maine had difficulty performing well against the souped up AL East teams in 2005.  Before the 2006 season, he was paired with Jorge Julio and dealt to the Mets for a promising pitcher who had never reached his potential, Kris Benson.  Maine did well in the NL East as his fly balls more often went to the warning track and not over the fence.  That lasted a couple years until his rotator cuff became shredded and he left New York amid a great deal of controversy.

Denny Bautista - As confused and angry as fans were that Bautista was dealt for Grimsley, he wound up having several cups of coffee with a handful of teams, but with no lasting success.  Grimsley is remembered for being a focus point for the introduction of Performance Enhancing Drugs in the Orioles clubhouse, fairly or unfairly.  Pitching-wise, he was above average for them in 2006 and poorly in 2007.

Chris Tillman 67/22/--
Brian Matusz --/25/5
Zach Britton --/--/63
Radhames Liz 69/--/--
Jake Arrieta --/67/99
Troy Patton 78/--/--

This period of time is where the term "cavalry" was applied.  It was a rather tumultuous time where the Orioles constantly had arms in the wing and those arms largely failed to show up (we are not even discussing Brandon Erbe here).  It is difficult to tell a Spring Training and Season story as we did in the previous two iterations of the cavalry.  Instead, we'll address this player by player.

Along with Matusz, Chris Tillman was another rather highly considered arm.  He was acquired by the Orioles in the monsterly one sided Erik Bedard deal that also saw Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Kameron Mickolio, and Tony Butler arrive into the organization.  Tillman profiled as a workhorse righthander with a mid 90s fastball and a startlingly plus curveball.  He struggled mightily with commanding and controlling his curveball and lost five mph on his fastball.  In 2012, everything began to click.  He may not be the ace pitcher the team was hoping for, but he has been a solid three slot starter on a first division team.

Brian Matusz was a solid draft selection in 2008.  However, there was major controversy about selecting him over South Carolina 1B Justin Smoak.  Although teeth were much gnashed, both picks have been rather lackluster.  As a polished lefty, Matusz made quick work of the minors.  He experienced some success in the majors, but a collection of mechanical changes, injuries, alleged disagreements with management, and unfortunate outcomes from those disagreements have led to Matusz being a much marginalized LOOGY.  There is not much hope of him becoming anything else for this team and has been often mentioned as a trade piece.

Zach Britton fits a story.  It is not a particularly complicated one and it might even be an unfair story.  His problem supposedly is that he had a devastating two seam fastball in the minors.  As hitters become more advanced, the more the pitcher has to hit the bottom of the strikezone and get it by the batter.  Too low, and advanced hitters will take it for a ball.  Too high, and it will be smoked.  Added to that, advanced fly ball hitters are quite capable of getting under well thrown two seamers.  It was a major reason why we here at Camden Depot have always been very conservative with Britton.  Too often, we think armchair and even some professional scouts become way too infatuated with groundballs while ignoring potential shortcomings.  2014 will find him out of options and either in the bullpen or on another team.

Radhames Liz held a great deal of potential.  He had a plus fastball that ran as high at 97 mph, a devastating curveball, and a great curveball.  His mechanics though often meant that nothing was going right.  When it did go right, he was a beast.  In 2006, he was part of a multi-pitcher no hitter.  In 2007, he threw one by himself.  Unfortunately, the consistency in his mechanics never came, meaning that his command never arrived.  Advanced hitters would simply force him into fastball counts by not chasing his other pitches or would tee off him when Liz failed to throw them well.  After the 2009 season, the Orioles placed him on waivers and San Diego picked him up.  After an average season in the Padres minor league system, Liz went over to Korea to pitch for the LG Twins where he has pitched well for what appears to be a rather poor team.

Jake Arrieta also spent several frustrating years pitching for the Orioles.  His fastball and his breaking ball are plus, but his change up is worthless.  That left him with a 683/833 OPS split that favored him against right handers.  It is a similar career line that Bud Norris enjoys (704/811).  As you can imagine, Arrieta had difficulty making it through lineups and, particularly, through lefty stacked lineups.  If his pitches were not running well, he tended to flame out the second time through the lineup.  That is a pretty common result for what is essentially a two pitch pitcher.  To a lesser extent, you see the same with Bud Norris.  The difference perhaps between the two pitchers is that Arrieta at times was visibly shaken when teams began teeing off him while Norris steels himself.  It is not like there is that much of a difference in the end result, Norris just plays it off better.  Anyway, Arrieta was packaged with an underperforming Pedro Strop and some international money in exchange for a partial season of Scott Feldman from the Cubs.

Troy Patton came to the Orioles injured as the center piece in the Miguel Tejada to Astros deal.  Shoulder issues made him rank lower than he would have if he had been completely healthy.  The reports were pretty solid on him as a low 90s thrower with an excellent slider and an average changeup.  He was not a big name prospect, but the bet was that he would get healthy and contribute to the Orioles.  However, the injury was slightly worse than previously thought and he came back from it a few ticks slower.  He basically is now a two seamer and slider pitcher who sometimes will use his changeup to keep hitters honest.  He is not a LOOGY like Matusz, but he would be of little use in the starting rotation.  Patton will serve a 25 game suspension for amphetamine use in 2014 and will find himself on the trade block through the season.

Hearing the Bugle
Perhaps the current batch of cavalry is different where in the past only Chris Tillman emerged--after a decent number of struggles.  It is fair to say that in 2014 we find the most impressive collection of minor league arms that this team has seen in quite a long time.  Kevin Gausman is already an MLB ready pitcher.  He had some struggles last year, but he has the ability to be a mid to top of the rotation pitcher.  Two years ago, Dylan Bundy had a cup of coffee in the Majors and did not look like he belonged there.  Last year was going to be a major polishing season, but he lost that to surgery.  This year will be about getting arm strength back to see if 2015 finds him in Baltimore.  Eduardo Rodriguez will like need a season or two to better refine his pitching.  He will likely be a back of the rotation arm if everything works out.  Finally, Hunter Harvey had a great deal of helium injected into him from pro scouts who saw a dozen innings last year and wished to rewrite what the amateur scouts thought of him.  Maybe the pro scouts are right or maybe they are too eager.  If they are right, he is a top of the rotation arm who would be ready in 2016 or 2017.

Maybe this time it will be different.  If so, it will be the foundation for the team's next big window under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter.


timg56 said...

That drum beat of hoofs is likely to be more natives coming to join the party. After almost 2 decades of yearning for home grown pitching, I have quit hoping for the Cav to save us.

Anonymous said...

That was a depresing trip down memory lane...

Matt P said...

I'd say we've hit on four(Mussina, Bedard, McDonald and Ponson) of our twenty-four top hundred pitching prospects from 1990-2013. Tillman has potential to be a fifth success story.

It makes me wonder whether it's just luck or if some organizations are simply worse at turning minor league talent into major league talent. I suspect the latter.

Anonymous said...

Only time will tell if this group of prospects are the ones that actually turn into major league pitchers instead of major busts. Even McDonald, Ponson, and Beard only showed flashes. MOOSE has been the only home grown pitcher to have sustained success in 25 years.

Unknown said...

Its so interesting stumbling upon this now. Reading what happened to Zach Britton, especially after his historic 2016 season. While he is injured now and may never be the same, he still became a great closer. If just for 3 seasons.