Orioles’ future on display Sunday

July 11, 2009 | Luke Jones

The Orioles may be approaching the All-Star Break in a familiar position—out of contention—but their promising future will be on display Sunday afternoon, both in Baltimore and St. Louis.

Rookie right-hander Brad Bergesen—the Orioles’ biggest surprise of the first half—will take the hill in the Orioles’ final game before the break, but two other young pitching prospects will highlight their talents before a national television audience in St. Louis.

We’ve heard the numerous reports about the Orioles’ “Big Three” of Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta, but how many fans have actually seen them pitch?

Probably not too many.

We’ll get the chance to see Tillman and Matusz on Sunday, as the two prospects will take part in the Futures Game at 2 p.m. on ESPN2.  Arrieta participated in last year’s game.  The annual contest features some of the most promising minor leaguers in baseball.

The 21-year-old Tillman—one of the key pieces acquired in the Erik Bedard trade—appears to be the next in line for a promotion to Baltimore, pitching to a 7-5 record and a 2.50 ERA with Norfolk.  The Triple-A prospect was recently rated as Baseball America’s eighth-best overall prospect in its midseason report.

Tillman, 6-foot-5,  is averaging more than a strikeout per inning and has added an improved changeup to a repertoire already including a mid-90s fastball and a sharp curveball.  Club officials are excited about his vast success at such a young age but are trying to balance this enthusiasm with a fear of rushing the young pitcher, a dilemma becoming more difficult with the struggles of starters Rich Hill and Jason Berken in Baltimore.

Even more impressive than Tillman is the progress of Matusz in his first year of professional baseball.  The club’s first-round pick in 2008, Matusz did not sign a contract in time to play with a full-season team last year.

After going 4-2 with a 2.16 ERA in only 11 starts at Single-A Frederick to begin the season, the southpaw was promoted to Double-A Bowie last month.  In his four starts with the Baysox, the 22-year-old has posted unbelievable numbers, including a 4-0 record, a 0.34 ERA, and 32 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings.

His most recent start was an eight-inning, one-hit effort against the Harrisburg Senators in which Matusz struck out 11 batters.  Matusz has allowed only one earned run since being promoted from Frederick.

Matusz was just one spot behind Tillman on Baseball America’s midseason list at No. 9, but the organization figures to handle Matusz similarly to Matt Wieters by allowing him to play an entire season in the minor leagues before promoting him early next season.

Of course, skeptics will argue that plenty of former Baltimore prospects have played in the Futures Game and flopped in Baltimore—and they would be correct with Matt Riley, Radhames Liz, and Garrett Olson as three examples—but a number of current Orioles have participated in the Futures Game including Nolan Reimold, Danys Baez, Felix Pie, and Lou Montanez.

The Futures Game, first staged in 1999, holds an impressive list of past participants who are now thriving at the big-league level.  Past selections include Lance Berkman, Ryan Braun, Adam Dunn, Josh Hamilton, Hanley Ramirez, CC Sabathia, Grady Sizemore, and Chase Utley.

There are no guarantees—after all, the young pitchers are still only hurling against Double-A and Triple-A talent—but it’s easy to get excited when considering Matusz, Tillman, and Arrieta are all rated higher than Bergesen was on the Orioles’ list of pitching prospects.

For the sake of Orioles fans suffering through another summer of meaningless baseball—at least in terms of the AL East standings—Sunday should be a nice reprieve and, hopefully, a promise of what’s to come.

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