On August 19th, 2010, Orioles fans got their first real look at the what their top pitching prospect could do. In his 33rd career start, Brian Matusz went eight scoreless innings against the Texas Rangers, striking out six and allowing only six baserunners. The Rangers lineup included AL MVP Josh Hamilton and future Hall-of-Famer Vladimir Guerrero, yet only managed one extra-base hit on the day. O's fans could be forgiven if they were imagining their young phenom as the ace in a solid rotation for years to come. But following a torrid end to the 2010 season (8 ER in his last eight starts; K/BB ratio of 43/12 in 46 IP), a miserable 2011 and a struggling start to 2012, Matusz found himself in the bullpen, relegated to a role that even the most pessimistic O's fan couldn't have predicted: middle relief.
TINSTAAPP. You may have seen this acronym before. It stands for: There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. That's a sentiment that O's fans have become cruelly acquainted with over the years. But Brian Matusz was supposed to be different. The 4th pick (and top pitcher taken) in the 2008 MLB draft, Matusz boasted a 6'4" frame, four projectable pitches, and major league-ready command. He was fast-tracked through the minors, debuting on August 4th, 2009 in an impressive win over the Detroit Tigers. Following the impressive end to his rookie campaign in 2010, O's fans were excited to see Matusz at the head of a young rotation with other top prospects Chris Tillman, Zack Britton and Jake Arrieta. But following a late debut due to injury, Matusz struggled in all but his first two starts. Actually, struggled is putting it nicely. His ERA was above 5 after his third start, and was over 7(!) from June 30th onward. Matusz last started a game for the O's on July 1st, 2012. He pitched four innings in a 6-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, allowing two HRs, striking out two batters and walking three. His ERA on the season was 5.42. He had lost his last five decisions. Matusz was sent to AAA Norfolk, and O's fans mourned the loss of another top pitching prospect.
But Matusz was recalled to the big leagues on August 24th. Contending for a playoff spot, and looking for left-handed help in the bullpen, Matusz was called up to replace ineffectual reliever J.C. Romero. Matusz pitched in his first night back, striking out Colby Rasmus of the Blue Jays on three pitches in a game the O's would go on to win, 6-4. Matusz would pitch out of the bullpen for the rest of the season, allowing only two runs in 18 appearances and boasting a 19/3 K/BB ratio. Matusz would only pitch more than one inning twice, and never threw more than 24 pitches in a game.
When the Orioles finally made the postseason in 2012, the superstar rotation that O's fans dreamed of in 2010 was gone. Britton and Arietta were in the minors. Chris Tillman, on the playoff roster, wouldn't enter a playoff game. And Brian Matusz, the ace that O's fans expected to be that Game 1 playoffs starter, viewed the start of all six games from his new home in the bullpen.
I'm sure some O's fans were skeptical when, shortly after the season ended, Brian Matusz announced his intentions to try out for a spot in the starting rotation in spring training. After all, on a team with four proven MLB starters that was expected to go out and add to their rotation in free agency, was there really room for a starter-turned-reliever who couldn't cut it in their last attempt? Add to that the fact that Matusz had a very good 2013 season out of the bullpen. In 51 IP across 65 appearances, Matusz had a 3.53 ERA, with 8.8 K/9 and over three strikeouts for every walk. With Troy Patton suspended to start the season, would the O's really risk moving their one reliable lefty out of the bullpen?
Another reason to be skeptical: Matusz's splits vs righties and lefties. In his career, Matusz has shutdown left-handed batters, who are batting .208/.264/.354 with an OPS+ of 55. But right-handed batters are batting .305/.370/.490 against Matusz with an OPS+ of 116. So Matusz goes from one of the best pitchers in the league vs lefties to being a batting practice pitcher against righties. Matusz's K/BB ratio also suffers, going from 4.84 vs lefties to 1.57 vs righties. This trend did little to reverse itself last year, where Matusz faced more lefties than righties but allowed an OPS + of 105 to righties vs 55 to lefties. Can Matusz succeed as a starter against teams who will likely fill their lineups with right-handed batters to face him?
The O's also have no shortage of competition for starting rotation spots. Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez are locks, with Bud Norris most likely in the fourth spot. Matusz will have to compete with minor leaguers like Britton and Steve Johnson, prospects such as Kevin Gausman and Mike Wright and free agent signings such as Alfredo Aceves and newly-signed Suk-min Yoon. The Orioles could also still sign a FA pitcher, such as Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez if the mood strikes them.
Matusz is only 27, and he is still working on getting the touch for all four of his pitches back after injury derailed his promising career. As noted in a column from MASN's Steve Melewski, Matusz is trying to regain the feel for his changeup, which was his most effective pitch against righties, in hopes that it could make him effective enough against righties to start games. Matusz is just at the age where he should be entering his "prime" years as a pitcher, and it isn't too far out of the ordinary for pitchers to come back from the brink of obscurity and become solid major league pitchers (Roy Halladay had an ERA over 10 when he was 23, and he turned out OK!).
The odds Matusz can make it back to being a starting pitcher aren't great. But despite what feelings of disappointment Brian and O's fans might have about how his career has turned out so far, even if he can't make the transition back to the starting rotation and has to stay in the bullpen, there is one positive fans can take out of Matusz being an Oriole pitcher: David Ortiz is never getting a clutch late-inning hit against us again.