Five biggest Orioles disappointments of first half

July 11, 2012 | Luke Jones

3. Mark Reynolds

It’s difficult to remember a more polarizing player in Baltimore than the 28-year-old power hitter, even after Reynolds hit 37 home runs in his first season with the Orioles. Last year, Reynolds was a flawed player who made up for his poor average and defense by drawing walks and hitting for power (his .806 OPS led the club), but his supporters haven’t found anything to celebrate this season.

Not only did Reynold’s poor work at third base force Showalter to move him to first, but the slugger is hitting .207 and has struck out 72 times with only seven home runs in 193 at-bats this season. He still leads the club in walks with 33 despite a stint on the disabled list, but the infielder hasn’t been nearly productive enough with the bat to make up for his obvious weaknesses.

Reynolds averaged a home run every 16.8 plate appearances last season, but that number has plummeted to one per 33.3 in 2012, magnifying his defensive limitations and poor average even more. His defense at first base has been bearable, but his bat hasn’t translated to what’s expected at a power-hitting position on the field.

With right fielder Nick Markakis returning to start the second half and veteran Jim Thome now the regular designated hitter, the club will likely try to move Reynolds at the deadline to open a spot for Chris Davis at first base — and keep him away from the outfield if possible. Even if they wait and hope for Reynolds to get hot, the Orioles have an $11 million club option for him in 2013 that they’re highly unlikely to exercise, meaning his time in Baltimore is short no matter how you slice it.

2. Brian Matusz

A disastrous 2011 season left a plethora of doubts regarding the 2008 first-round pick entering the season, but all appeared right with Matusz after his first start of June when he allowed one earned run in 7 1/3 innings in a win over Tampa Bay. The first two months of the season had been up and down, but the terrific start against the Rays had lowered his earned run average to 4.41 and reminded many of how good he looked at the end of the 2010 campaign.

Following that start, Matusz allowed 20 earned runs in his next 21 1/3 innings over five starts (all losses) to balloon his ERA to 5.42, giving the Orioles no choice but to send him to Triple-A Norfolk. The left-hander is 5-10 and has a horrid 1.71 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) in 16 starts (84 2/3 innings) this year.

Unlike last year, his velocity and health haven’t been major concerns, but Matusz has struggled to repeat the mechanics of his delivery and his fastball command has been poor.

Matusz has clearly frustrated the organization as his talent is obvious, but his lack of confidence and the hangover of last season’s poor work ethic have left him on very shaky footing for the remainder of the season and beyond. The real question will be whether executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and Showalter send a message to the lefty with an extended stay in Norfolk or they’ll have no choice but to roll the dice with him again due to the Orioles’ starting pitching woes.

1. Jake Arrieta

The 26-year-old appeared ready to take the reins at the top of the rotation after a sparkling Opening Day win in which he threw seven shutout innings against the Minnesota Twins. The right-hander looked brilliant at times in the first half, turning in five starts of seven or more innings.

But there’s been far too much of the bad Arrieta to overlook the occasional dominance. His 3-9 record and 6.13 ERA landed him in Triple-A Norfolk for the first time since 2010 as he joined Matusz and Tommy Hunter in the Tides’ starting rotation.

Arrieta has improved his walk totals this season as he’s averaged only 2.8 per nine innings — down from 4.4 in 2011 — but high pitch counts and wildness within the strike zone have burned him countless times this season. Confidence and focus have become concerns with Arrieta as he’s admitted to thinking too much when he’s on the mound, something Showalter has attributed to his struggles.

A brief demotion to the bullpen appeared to do the trick of clearing Arrieta’s head when he was forced to make an emergency start against Pittsburgh in mid-June. He struck out nine and allowed one earned run in seven innings to earn a win and followed that with another good outing two starts later against Washington, but the success was short-lived.

In his final two starts before being sent down, Arrieta allowed 11 earned runs, 13 hits, and five walks in 7 1/3 innings, prompting the Orioles to make the move.

The regression of Matusz and Arrieta has easily been the biggest disappointment of the 2012 season — and raises even more long-term concerns — but Arrieta’s dramatic fall from starting on Opening Day to riding buses in the minors puts him ahead of Matusz in a category neither young pitcher wanted any part of.