Commentary

Young Orioles arms off to fast starts

Updated: April 5, 2011, 12:18 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

The majors' best ERA (0.69) among starting pitchers belongs to a team in the American League East, and it is not the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays.

60 Feet 6 Inches

No, despite a rotation populated with relative unknowns, it's the Baltimore Orioles who are off to the game's hottest start on the mound. Most incredibly, they've done it despite being the only team in the AL East to have no more than one starting pitcher drafted in ESPN standard leagues; every other team had at least two. That pitcher, Brian Matusz (50th among starting pitchers, 195.3 average draft position), has yet to start for the Orioles in 2011.

Now, four games hardly define a season. Brad Bergesen, making a spot start for Jeremy Guthrie on Wednesday, could promptly get hammered in Detroit and spoil that sparkling ERA. Because 72 of their games will be played within that high-powered AL East, the Orioles will probably take their lumps in due time. After all, AL East teams had a 4.53 ERA and 1.38 WHIP combined pitching within the division, noticeably higher than the AL averages of 4.14 and 1.35 overall.

But these Orioles shouldn't be regarded as total pushovers. Matusz, out three to six weeks with a strained intercostal muscle, isn't the only young pitcher making a name for himself in the season's early going. Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Chris Tillman, every one of them 25 years of age or younger, turned in a quality start during the season's opening week, and might yet warrant our attention.

[+] EnlargeTillman
Kim Klement/US PresswireChris Tillman pitched six hitless innings in his 2011 debut Saturday but was pulled before he could start the seventh.

Britton, called upon to fill Matusz's vacated rotation spot this past Sunday, tossed six innings of one-run, three-hit baseball, striking out six Rays. Jason Grey profiled Britton on Monday, and I agree with his assessment. Britton had a 66.4 percent ground ball rate and 7.28 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio between Double- and Triple-A last season, and his heavy sinker is likely to help ease his transition to the big leagues. In the best-case scenario, Britton could wind up a left-handed version of Trevor Cahill, but that he calls the AL East home should keep him short of that. Still, there's enough here that Britton could outperform any Orioles starter but Matusz.

Tillman, who tossed a no-hitter for Triple-A Norfolk last April 28, tossed six no-hit innings for the Orioles on Saturday, actually upstaging Britton. Unfortunately, his fastball hasn't been nearly as effective during his brief glimpses at the big league level as it was in the minors, and his command has wavered as well. To date, Tillman has averaged 5.41 K's and 4.19 walks per nine in the majors; he averaged 9.19 and 3.50, respectively, during his minor league career. There will be days Tillman's stuff is sharp, as it was during his 2011 debut, but I'm not convinced he'll be much more than a No. 3/4 starter over the long haul. And as a member of the AL East, his fantasy owners might need to be rather selective about his matchups.

Arrieta, meanwhile, has the stuff of a No. 1/2 starter, but perhaps command too questionable to land him there at his career peak. He averaged 3.77 walks per nine innings during his minor league career, higher even than Tillman, and averaged 4.31 walks per nine during his 18-start stint with the Orioles last summer. As he did on Monday, when he limited the Detroit Tigers to one run on six hits in six innings, Arrieta might be a standout from time to time, but it's hard to envision him being consistently reliable in fantasy, so long as his walk rate is that high, and within range of his strikeout rate (4.66 per nine).

The verdict: Britton is the Orioles hurler to get, and if you're picking between the other two, go Arrieta, then Tillman. But neither of the latter two should be trusted on a consistent basis; go start-to-start with both.

The Orioles weren't the only team featuring some new names in the rotation during the opening week. Let's introduce you to a few others:

Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves: The first thing you'll notice at the moment you're introduced to Beachy is his strikeout rate. You've probably never heard of him but the numbers he has registered in the category are sure to garner a positive reaction. Take a look: He averaged 9.87 K's per nine during his minor league career and whiffed 15 batters in 15 frames in a late-season stint with the Braves in 2010 and 21 in 20 innings during spring training. Those numbers were enough to allow Beachy to beat out Mike Minor for the fifth-starter job, and during his 2011 debut he whiffed seven Milwaukee Brewers over six innings in a road start. As with any young pitcher, Beachy might endure an adjustment period at some point, especially once scouts get a firmer handle on him, but he's a definite add in NL-only and deep-mixed leagues for now. Just keep tabs on his command numbers; any wavering in those would be a sure sign it's time to sell high.

Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves: Let's not forget Minor, who, thanks to an injury to Jair Jurrjens, gets another chance to strut his stuff for the big league Braves. He didn't fall short in his quest for the fifth-starter role this spring because of poor performance; it was a mere matter of Beachy being more exceptional of the two in what was a hotly contested race. Minor has the gaudy strikeout numbers Beachy does; he averaged 10.92 K's per nine during his minor league career. The problem is his command wavers more, signaling the potentially rougher adjustment period of the two. If you're selective enough, Minor might yet help, and NL-only owners will surely want him. But his value is primarily in keeper leagues, as he might be a star one day, if you can be patient.

Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers: One of the five players the Rangers acquired from the Braves in 2007's Mark Teixeira trade, Harrison has gotten brief glimpses in the team's rotation in each of the three seasons since yet has never been able to lock one spot down for the long haul. The problem: He lacks a quality out pitch against right-handers, who have .300/.360/.486 lifetime numbers against him. His 2011 debut, however, which included eight strikeouts of Boston Red Sox hitters in seven innings' work, represented improvement. Per PitchFX, Harrison recorded 19 strikes or outs on pitches down and in to right-handed hitters. He admitted after his start that once he realized he'd get the inside of the plate against righties he began attacking that part of the strike zone. But that's the problem with Harrison: He needs to be pinpoint with his command to succeed, especially calling such a hitter-friendly venue his home. He's a pitcher to monitor and certainly add in all AL-only formats but might still top out as a matchups candidate over the long haul.

Three up

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: For one start, at least, Garcia showed no adverse effects of what was a 125 2/3-inning increase in workload from 2009-10. He shut out the San Diego Padres on four hits and two walks on Sunday and, perhaps more importantly, continued to generate a high rate of ground balls (12, compared to three fly balls and four line drives), struck out nine and generated swinging strikes 13.7 percent of the time. Sure, Garcia did it against a weak San Diego Padres lineup, so don't jump to conclusions, but it's the strikeouts that were a bit out of character for him. Per ESPN Stats & Information, his slider made the difference; nine of his 10 sliders came when he was ahead in the count and five resulted in swinging strikeouts. If Garcia can elevate his K's-per-nine ratio closer to nine than 2010's 7.27, coupled with a near-60 percent ground ball rate, he'd take another big step forward in 2011.

Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs: Through the first weekend's play, Garza claimed the major league leads in two categories, hits (12) and strikeouts (12). First-pitch strikes were largely responsible; he threw 24 of them to the 32 batters he faced (75 percent). He didn't walk a single batter, so don't sweat the hits, especially accounting for his bloated .600 batting average on balls in play on the day. Garza's seven line drives allowed did contribute to the inflated BABIP, but since he has a lifetime 18.7 percent line-drive rate that shouldn't be any kind of recurring problem. It's a good first impression for him as a member of the National League, so talk that he might make a run at top-25 fantasy starter status indeed has some merit.

Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore Orioles: Has this "American League East phobia" gone too far? Guthrie, the No. 48 starting pitcher on the 2010 Player Rater, was scarcely drafted in ESPN standard-mixed leagues this spring. While it's fair to fear his Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees matchups -- he was 3-16 with a 5.71 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 22 starts against them from 2008-10 -- he has actually been a reliable option against almost everyone else -- 29-27 with a 3.67 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 74 starts, counting his eight shutout innings against the Tampa Bay Rays this past Friday. Pitchers like this have back-of-a-staff/singular-league (AL-only) value, in spite of the concerns: "He doesn't strike out enough hitters." "He's a fly ball pitcher in a hitters' park." Both complaints are valid, but in exchange for those Guthrie's command rivals the best in the game; his 2.50 walks-per-nine ratio since 2008 is 10th best among those with 600-plus innings. Duck those Red Sox and Yankees matchups and you should be plenty pleased with the returns. One note, of course: He'll miss his scheduled Wednesday start because of pneumonia, though it's not expected to cost him more than one turn through the rotation.

Three down

John Lackey, Boston Red Sox: Haven't we seen this before? While Lackey did start 2010 on a high note -- he tossed six shutout innings of three-hit baseball against the Yankees on April 7 -- for the most part he was a considerable disappointment to his fantasy owners the first two months of the season. It might feel natural to grant him a mulligan, accounting for his horrible track record at Rangers Ballpark -- he has a 6.78 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in 17 career starts there -- but there was more to his poor debut than just a faulty matchup. His fastball velocity was down, averaging 90.8 mph (compared to 91.5 in 2010 and 91.1 for his career), he issued two free passes in 3 2/3 innings and the Texas Rangers weren't chasing, swinging at his offerings outside the strike zone only 17.1 percent of the time (26.0 for his career). Run support might never be a problem for Lackey in Boston, but his ratios could be problematic without a few adjustments.

Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee Brewers: Is the shoulder stiffness that plagued him during spring training a lingering issue? Perhaps, judging by his mediocre returns in his Brewers debut this past Saturday. After averaging 1.98 walks per nine innings during his breakout 2010, Marcum issued five free passes in 4 2/3 innings at Cincinnati. He also surrendered six fly balls and three line drives, the Reds teeing off on him like few opponents not named the Red Sox or Yankees did a year ago. Maybe time will heal Marcum, but right now he's not likely to offer value at his top-30 starting pitcher ADP of the preseason. Don't give up on him, but be especially mindful of his walk rate in his next few turns.

Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins: So much for the National League East curing all that ails him. Remember the last time Vazquez resided in the NL East, in 2009? He kicked off that year with four consecutive quality starts, totaling 34 K's in 24 innings, the first coming in a challenging assignment at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park. This time around, Vazquez floundered at home versus the New York Mets, most disturbingly issuing five walks in 2 1/3 innings' work. He was clocked only in the high 80s with his fastball (a few reports having him at 87), so clearly he hasn't regained the velocity he lost last season. Vazquez's bounce-back chances remain stronger in Florida than in New York, but his stuff isn't anything close to what it was during his 2009 in Atlanta. He might be a matchups/NL-only option the entire season and one frustrating to own for lengthy stretches.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.