The cautionary tale with Orioles prospects

July 25, 2012 | Mark Brown

Once, names like Tillman, Matusz and Arrieta were just as untouchable as Bundy and Machado now are. They were the cavalry. I mention that phrase often when I talk about that crop of pitchers because it illustrates the mass delusion in which we all participated: these are the best pitching prospects for the Orioles, therefore they will be good-to-great pitchers in the big leagues for the Orioles. Instead, the crop failed.

These are not guys who have been derailed by the kinds of injuries that historically threaten careers. Arrieta had the problem with bone spurs in his elbow, but we haven’t been talking about torn ligaments or Tommy John surgery for him. (Knock on wood.) Matusz had his intercostal muscle strain last year. No one has had to go in and scope out his shoulder, though.

They just haven’t been good. They aren’t yet old – Tillman’s 24, Matusz is 25 and Arrieta is 26 – but they aren’t fresh-faced kids any more either. They’ve all had seasons of minor league experience, they’ve been called up, sent down, worked on things, came back, and Matusz and Arrieta just haven’t put it together. Maybe Tillman has, if you’re optimistic based on two of his three starts this year. Of those three pitchers, he has the lowest MLB ERA: 5.23.

The thought of trading any of those guys over the last few years was unfathomable in part because it just didn’t make sense at that point in the development cycle for the Orioles. The idea was that it was these young players who would be the key pieces to which they would add. Yet – with hindsight being 20/20, of course – it now seems like one or more of these pitchers may have had their greatest value to the future of the Orioles as a trade piece.

What might they have fetched for the Orioles? It’s hard to say, but it wasn’t just the Orioles press who was crowing about their potential. Any GM – or executive vice president of baseball operations, or whatever – would have taken the phone call and a lot of names, themselves “untouchable”, would have been on the table. Now the value of guys like Matusz and Arrieta is only if they can convince a team to take on a reclamation project lottery ticket.

Duquette says, “The future is now.” He probably would not, nor should he, trade a Bundy or a Machado for a half-year rental of a pitcher like Zach Greinke or Cole Hamels. But somewhere out there may be a deal where one of those players could be included in a deal that would make the Orioles better in the present and in the future, and if that deal comes along, Duquette should listen.

After all, as O’s fans should know as well as anyone, there are no sure things, even in the high reaches of the prospect world.