Posted: Wednesday April 6, 2011 12:04PM ; Updated: Wednesday April 6, 2011 2:29PM
Jon Heyman

Orioles not shocked by fast start, even if most of baseball is

Story Highlights

The Orioles haven't had a winning season since 1997 but are 4-0

Young pitchers like Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton have fueled the hot start

Buck Showalter has enhanced his reputation as a great turn-around manager

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Jake Arrieta
Jake Arrieta is just one of several quality young starters that have guided the Orioles to first place in the AL East.
Getty Images

The Orioles were almost everyone's last-place pick in easily baseball's toughest division, yet entering play on Wednesday they are one of only three unbeaten teams in baseball, along with the Rangers and Reds, and sit atop the American League East. Which means there is already a lot of re-evaluation happening by baseball scouts, writers and competing executives.

The O's themselves aren't quite as shocked to be 4-0. Their young pitchers helped them to the American League's second-best record (behind only the Twins) after August 3 last year, and they give them hope again this year -- even if almost no one else saw it that way.

"They're not a flash in the pan,'' Orioles president Andy MacPhail said by phone in answer to a question about whether Baltimore can contend with all its inexperienced pitchers. "If our starting pitchers pitch the way they did the last two months and the first four games, of course we'll be a contender.''

That's a big "if,'' of course, considering the Orioles are employing four pitchers 25 or younger in their rotation: Jake Arrieta, 25; Brian Matusz, currently on the shelf with an intercostal strain, 24; Zach Britton, 23; and Chris Tillman, 22.

It isn't just MacPhail and manager Buck Showalter who are starting to believe those starters are nearly ready to shoulder that burden of leading the O's into the playoff hunt. One National League scout said he believes Britton is even better than the Yankees' ballyhooed wunderkind Manuel Banuelos, who at only 20 generally earned the biggest raves in spring and may make it to the bigs this year. Another scout rated lefthanders Britton and Matusz as potential top-of-the-rotation starters while suggesting that power arms Arrieta and Tillman were likely to settle in as middle-of-the-rotation guys, Tillman's six innings of no-hit pitching against the perennial upstart Rays in his seasonal debut notwithstanding.

Matusz, with 40 career starts, has the most experience of the quartet and has been considered a future star. Arrieta, according to one scout, has "all the pitches'' but needs to be a bit more consistent with his location. Tillman has a nice repertoire but a scout worried that his over-the-top style can make his fastball straight. Britton has a deadly late-action sinker, especially if he can learn to take another 3-to-4 mph off his changeup. They should all benefit under the guidance of veteran pitching coach Mark Connor, long Showalter's right-hand man, and bullpen coach Rick Adair, himself a successful former pitching coach with the Mariners.

"Britton might end up being better than Matusz,'' another scout said, echoing praise that was heard throughout Florida about the young lefthander who had a great spring before being optioned to Triple-A before but then summoned to the majors after Matusz's injury came to light (Matusz is expected to be out at least three weeks). The Orioles originally sent Britton out in part to set back his free-agent eligibility, but had to promote him when Matusz joined the perpetually injured veteran Justin Duchscherer among starting pitchers in sick bay. "He should be pretty good,'' MacPhail said of Britton.

The whole team might be better than most of us thought. Part of the under-rating of the O's was due to the fact that they haven't had a winning record since 1997, while some of it was caused by a so-so spring when they were ravaged by injury. Only twice this spring did Showalter have his full complement of everyday players at his disposal, so the team didn't show its true potential. The spring absences of Brian Roberts, who missed time with a back problem but already has two home runs in the regular season, may have camouflaged Baltimore's abilities. While their lineup isn't as star-studded as those of the Yankees or Red Sox, the winter moves to acquire three other infielders to go with Roberts -- veteran first baseman Derrek Lee, who was also hurt much of spring, plus shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds -- should help.

The most vital move, though, has been the hiring of Showalter, a take-no-guff veteran whose arrival late last summer coincided with as stark a turnaround as possible. The Orioles had baseball's worst record when he took over and its third-best record afterward. "I don't think there's any question things changed the moment (Showalter) walked through the door,'' MacPhail said.

Showalter was known to be extremely talented but his hiring was seen as a bit of a gamble after a couple bad breakups. One competing executive, who called it a "high risk, high reward hire,'' praised the move, saying only Showalter or Bobby Valentine would have been right for an organization in need of an overhaul. Showalter espoused a complete change in the way things were done in his characteristically gutsy interview, and oft-criticized hands-on owner Peter Angelos and MacPhail should be credited for taking the needed chance. Some see the buttoned-down MacPhail and Showalter, who has shown some Machiavellian tendencies in the past, as baseball's oddest couple, but it's proving to be a perfect match. "We needed a guy who would be all in,'' MacPhail said. "He's a 24-7 guy.''

They also needed someone who'd make the players take notice. "The credibility level is a little bit different,'' MacPhail said. Showalter is the right fit for a young and talented clubhouse that needed a push. Angelos is said to have wanted Showalter, who spent time as an ESPN analyst, after watching him on TV, but MacPhail disputed the perception that Angelos needed to nudge him away from another candidate, Eric Wedge, and toward Showalter. MacPhail said that both he and Angelos concluded they needed someone with experience and credibility. MacPhail's top list of Showalter, Wedge and Bobby Valentine became two after Valentine withdrew, and while MacPhail admired the solid Wedge, the two Orioles decision-makers ultimately concluded that Wedge just didn't have the "larger than life persona Buck has.''

That persona has grown since turning around the Orioles, and it will continue to grow if Showalter can somehow keep Baltimore anything close to a threat in the American League East.
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