AL East Report: Baltimore’s Pitching Keys Surprising Start

The Tampa Bay Rays are red-hot and in first place, the Boston Red Sox found their footing and the American League East is starting to assert itself as once again the best top-to-bottom division in baseball. But no team is more newsworthy right now than the Baltimore Orioles who sit at 15-9, just one game back of Tampa and in second place as they get set for the rubber match of a three-game set in Yankee Stadium tonight, and it’s pitching that’s keyed the O’s strong showing out of the gate.

Baltimore’s ERA over the last week alone was 1.60, easily the best in the American League, and my first thought was that they’d finally just given Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor and Mike Cuellar the ball again to restore the franchise. My second thought—and one shared, I’m sure by most baseball fans, and probably even most Oriole fans—is that it won’t last. Let’s first concede the obvious, which is that no team will pitch at 1.60—or even a 2.60—rate all year. But then, before we dismiss the starting pitching, let’s actually look at the pitchers Buck Showalter is relying on day-to-day and see what the long-term prospects might be…

*Jake Arrieta has made five starts and has a 4.45 ERA. His career ERA is 4.82 so his early showing is pretty much  in line with what he’s been, and given he’s still only 26 there’s a higher likelihood he’ll get better rather than worse.

*Jason Hammel has made five starts his ERA is 1.97. This is the hot streak Baltimore has rode, but also the production they’ll have to replace once Hammel comes to earth. His past record indicates the coming to earth will likely be substantial.

*Brian Matusz won last night’s game in New York and his five-start ERA is 4.67. But if you’re looking to start picking up for a presumed Hammel letdown, this is the spot to begin. Matusz was one of the American League’s better young pitchers in 2010, had injury problems last year and with two consecutive strong starts might be regaining his mojo.

*Tommy Hunter is one of the pieces acquired from Texas in last year’s deal that shipped Koji Uehara to Texas. So yes, the Orioles gave away a 36-year-old reliever and got a 25-year old starter, who’d already been a part of Texas’s pennant-winning rotation in 2010 (they also got first baseman Chris Davis, who hit four home runs last week). Hunter’s ERA is 4.26 in five starts—it’s sustainable and pitching in a hitter-friendly park, more than acceptable. And if you believe in omens, Hunter’s alma mater, Alabama, won the national title in football.

*Wei-Yin Chen is the big X-factor here. The 26-year-old Japanese import didn’t arrive with the hype of Yu Darvish, but with a 2.22 ERA in his first four starts, he’s exceeded Darvish in early performance. Furthermore, as a lefthander, he can match up with left-leaning lineups in Boston and New York, with a good April showing against the Yanks providing early positive results.

A reasonable conclusion is that if Baltimore’s rotation stays healthy, it will at least stay respectable. We haven’t factored in the return of Zach Britton, the young starter with better stuff than anyone mentioned here. So the question then comes how good we think this Oriole team can be. Can they keep baseball on the frontburner in Charm City into September when the Ravens start playing football again? Or do more modest goals have to be set?

I’m inclined to stay with the modest goal idea. The AL East is a grind to go through and Baltimore’s had their best success playing outside the division thus far. The series they wrap up in New York tonight is the start of a schedule run that goes on to Boston, then has home dates with Texas, Tampa and New York again. On May 16 we’ll have an idea of what the Orioles might shoot for. In the meantime, here are some noteworthy benchmarks for wins…

*64 is what TheSportsNotebook picked them to win
*69.5 was the Over/Under number posted in Las Vegas
*75 has the intangible value of getting into the high 70s, a measure of respectability>
*The Elusive 82 gives the franchise their first winning season since 1997
*85 puts them squarely in the race for the last playoff berth.

Sitting here right now, 75 looks like where we should open discussion with the focus on going higher, rather than lower. We’ll see how things sit on the 16th of this month.

Around the rest of the AL East…

Tampa Bay (16-8): I didn’t mean to diss the Rays, who ‘d won 9 of 10 and taken over first place, by letting Baltimore suck up most of the space in this column. But Tampa got some bad news with the word that Evan Longoria will hit the DL for 6-8 weeks with a bad hamstring. That means the Rays need rookie pitcher Matt Moore to continue the solid trend he’s shown in his last couple starts, and they need young leftfielder Desmond Jennings to continue getting on base, as he shook off an early slump last week. It’s all hands on deck while the team deals with the loss of its big gun. That’s two straight years Longoria misses the bulk of time before the All-Star break.

NY Yanks (13-10): I’m not sure what to make of the Yanks right now and as a result I’m not sure if they’re playing well, badly or just kind of treading water. I guess that sort of ambiguity means it’s the latter. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are hitting. Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira are not. C.C. Sabathia looks like he’s warming up and breaking out his usual April slow start. The big concern now is Phil Hughes—he wasn’t pitching well in April and the Orioles rocked him off the mound last night.  It’s been a year and a half, plus a month that he’s been ineffective.

Toronto (13-11): The Jays are 4-8 against the AL East, so even though they’re in the midst of a 10-game road trip with a matinee game at Texas today that’s getting started as this article goes online, I’m sure the fact no division rivals are on the docket will be welcome.

Boston (11-12): Boston played themselves back up to the rest of the pack in the AL East by taking advantage of trips to Minnesota and Chicago to open up the offense. They’ve average seven-plus runs over the last seven games. The Sox host the Orioles this weekend and then have series with Kansas City, Cleveland and Seattle that give them a chance to build some momentum before meeting Tampa Bay on May 16.