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Baltimore Orioles Battle for Fifth Spot in Starting Rotation

January 28th, 2013 at 8:50 AM
By Josh Michael

With Spring Training just weeks around the corner it is time to start looking at some of the battles that will be going on this spring for the Baltimore Orioles. Today we will take a look at the biggest battle in regards to the amount players competing for one spot and that is the fifth spot in the starting rotation.

'Chris Tillman' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license:

Having stated that the battle is for the fifth spot, let me state who the guaranteed four are in the rotation already: Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman. Some people could argue that Tillman and maybe even Gonzalez are not guaranteed a spot, but the way both of those guys pitched down the stretch last season and in the Playoffs, I cannot fathom that either one of them will not be in the 2013 starting rotation.

In my analysis, I believe there are seven guys competing for the fifth spot in the starting rotation: Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, T.J. McFarland, Tommy Hunter, and recently signed free agent Jair Jurrjens.

So let's break down this battle and at the end of this, I will state who I believe should be the fifth starter heading into Spring Training, but of course, all of their performances in Spring Training will ultimately decide their fate.

First, let's go ahead and eliminate two guys in Tommy Hunter and T.J. McFarland. Hunter had a spot in the rotation for the Orioles last season for a little over half of the year, but once he was moved to the bullpen, he really seemed to flourish out there and mentally changed his game. Hunter completely took to the reliever role as he realized he did not have to save anything in the tank as he knew if was going to pitch two innings or less and began throwing at his full velocity as he hit 100 MPH several times and consistently threw 96-99 MPH with his fastball. That kind of velocity is too valuable to lose in the bullpen and Hunter's numbers improved drastically as well, so I see Hunter in the bullpen in 2013 for the Birds. McFarland, who was taken in the Rule 5 draft this offseason, has never pitched in a Major League game and I just can't see him earning a spot in the starting rotation and beating out six other guys who all have multiple seasons of Major League experience.

Now we are down to five, so let's look at them statistically (as starters) and see how they stack up against each other:

  • Brian Matusz21-33 with a 5.51 ERA in 68 games started and 354 2/3 innings pitched with a 1.556 WHIP
  • Zach Britton16-14 with a 4.76 ERA in 39 games started and 213 2/3 innings pitched with a 1.484 WHIP
  • Jake Arrieta19-27 with a 5.27 ERA in 58 games started and 321 innings pitched with a  1.467 WHIP
  • Steve Johnson3-0 with a 2.86 ERA in 4 games started and 22 innings pitched with a 1.182 WHIP
  • Jair Jurrjens53-37 with a 3.63 ERA in 125 games started and 749 2/3 innings pitched with a 1.322 WHIP

If you purely look at statistics, the battle would seem to be down to just Johnson and Jurrjens, but not so fast. First, Jurrjens is coming off of an absolute terrible year where he lost velocity on his fastball, has an ERA just under seven in his games started and ended up pitching a majority of the season in AAA, so he is certainly not a lock. Johnson's numbers are great, but obviously it is a very small sample size, thus you could not bank on those numbers playing out an entire season. Matusz and Britton have one thing going for them in that they are both left handed, and the rotation could use a second left hander (Chen) to keep it from being so right handed heavy.

I now will eliminate two more guys, Arrieta and Matusz. Arrieta does not get the nod from me due to his abysmal year last year where he seemed to completely lose all of his confidence on the mound, and honestly he seems like a guys who needs a fresh start somewhere else. I eliminate Matusz because of how well he performed once he moved to the bullpen last season and he became that second left hander out there to compliment Troy Patton and he also seemed to completely change his mindset as well. Matusz seemed to be very comfortable in the bullpen knowing he only had to get one to nine batters out and would not face the same hitter twice, so he was not afraid to use all of his pitches every at bat, as opposed to trying to keep some pitches in his pocket for the second or third time he faced a batter in a game. Brian was too good in the bullpen to not have him there in 2013, in my opinion.

'Zach Britton' photo (c) 2012, Keith Allison - license:

Now that the battle is down to three, I will state that I believe Britton should get the initial nod for the fifth spot in the rotation. I feel that Johnson should start in AAA to get some more experience against good competition and to prove that he was not just a quick flash in the pan and that he is a legitimate big league starting pitcher. Jurrjens should begin in AAA as well as the Orioles should make him prove that he can regain the form he had in 2011 when he was a National League All-Star and was one of the more dominant pitchers in the league.

Last year Britton was nursing an injury during the offseason and did not get to do his normal offseason routine and workouts and the same went for Spring Training, so now that he is 100% healthy he has been able do his normal offseason workouts and will get a full Spring Training in before the season starts. If Britton shows that he has returned to his 2011 form during Spring Training, I can't see how the Orioles could leave Britton out of the rotation as he would be that second left hander in the rotation and has shown, when healthy he can be a very good big league pitcher.

Who do you think should get the nod as the fifth starter in the starting rotation for Baltimore? Let your voice be heard by posting a comment!


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Tags: Baltimore, Baltimore Orioles, Baseball, Brian Matusz, Jair Jurrjens, Jake Arrieta, MLB, Steve Johnson, T.J. McFarland, Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton

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