I said my piece on the Orioles' 2011 outlook back in January, so I won't repeat it here, other than to point out that they signed Vladimir Guerrero after I wrote that post, further improving their lineup. Having enjoyed the greatest improvement after a managerial change in the game's history last year, the O's got off to a handsome 6-1 start this year before running into the even hotter Rangers. They cruise into the Bronx still leading the division at 6-3.
As was the case after Buck Showalter's arrival last year, they are doing it with pitching and defense. The O's allowed just one run in each of their first four games, and top prospect Zach Brittion, the rookie left-handed groundballer who may already be the team's ace, combined with Jason Berken to shutout the red-hot Rangers, handing them what was their only loss of the season entering Tuesday's action. The O's are second to the Rangers in all of baseball in defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) and have the majors fifth-best team ERA. However, they have been a below-average offensive team to this point and are just 1-3 when their opponents score multiple runs. The small sample alarm going off right now is deafening, but it will be interesting to see how that balance of power shifts, if at all, as the O's get deeper into the season.
For now, the Yankees should be glad that they will miss the O's top three starters in this series. Sophomore lefty Brian Matusz, who went 4-for-4 in quality starts against the Yankees as a rookie last year, is on the disabled list with an intercostal strain. Default ace Jeremy Guthrie pitched on Sunday. Future ace Britton, who handled the Yankees well in Spring Training, will face Cleveland on an extra day of rest on Friday, in part because of that recent exposure to New York. Guthrie and Britton have combined to allow just two runs in 27 2/3 innings across four starts this season. The three righty starters the Yankees will face instead have allowed 17 runs (15 earned) in 23 2/3 innings across five starts.
Here are the matchups we will see in this series:
A.J. Burnett (2-0, 4.09) vs. Chris Tillman (0-0, 3.38), Tuesday, 4/12, 7:05, WWOR-9
The only remaining piece of 2008's Adam Jones/Erik Bedard trade beyond Jones himself, Tillman is the least of the Orioles' young crop of starters, behind rookie Zach Britton and sophomores Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta. Though he won't be 23 until Friday, Tillman is actually in his third big-league season and is making his fourth start against the Yankees. However, he spent most of 2010 bouncing between the majors and minors, struggling with his consistency and control, and has yet to throw 70 innings in a single major league season. Tillman held the Rays hitless for six innings in his first start of the season, but was pulled after 101 pitches with the game still scoreless. In his next start, at home against the Tigers, a rough first and fifth inning resulted in an unimpressive line over 4 2/3 frames, though he only allowed a total of one baserunner in the second, third, and fourth innings of that game combined. Last year, Tillman turned in a quality start against the Yankees on June 9, but walked six in 3 2/3 innings against the Bombers on September 5, both games coming in Baltimore. In his lone start in the Bronx, in September 2009, he struck out eight in 5 frames but also allowed ten baserunners, including a three-run Alex Rodriguez home run in the first.
As for Burnett, he's off to a solid start in what he and the Yankees hope will be a bounceback season. He fought through throat and sinus infections to deliver five solid innings in his season debut against the Tigers and came back with a quality start against the Twins his second time out. In those two outings combined, he has struck out 11 in as many innings against just three walks and one homer. However, last year he went 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA through his first six starts, so even if Burnett avoids implosion, it will be a while before we can say with confidence that he has righted his ship. That said, keep an eye on his strikeout rate. It was was way down even during that hot start last year (6.2 K/9 through those six starts against 9.1 in his previous three seasons), but is back up at one per inning thus far this season.
Phil Hughes (0-1, 16.50) vs. Brad Bergesen (0-1, 4.91), Wednesday, 4/13, 7:05, YES
It's too early in the season to get worked up about a batting slump or a bad relief outing, but Phil Hughes' missing velocity and apparent inability to compensate for it is a major concern for the Yankees. Both Hughes and the team insist he's not injured, but they can't keep running him out there if he's going to get lit up every time. Hughes struggled through four innings in his first start, relying heavily on his cutter with little success, giving up five runs, four of them on Miguel Cabrera home runs. That last made that start look better than it was, as giving up home runs to Miguel Cabrera is hardly a red flag for any pitcher, but in Boston, Hughes gave up six runs in just two innings, and on the season he has struck out just one of the 33 batters he has faced, and only three of his 137 pitches have made a batter swing and miss. Mix in an extreme fly ball rate with all of that (often hard) contact, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Batters don't tend to miss Bergesen's pitches either, though on his best days they beat them into the ground and make a lot of outs. In his 2011 debut, the Tigers got those pitches in the air and Bergesen got the hook after 3 2/3 innings. He then got sent to Triple-A in a bit of a roster shell game to allow the O's to cover for an under-the-weather Jeremy Guthrie. He's not on the roster as I type this, but will be recalled (taking J.J. Hardy's spot) to make this start on Wednesday.
Ivan Nova (1-0, 6.10) vs. Jake Arrieta (1-1, 8.68), Thursday, 4/14, 7:05, YES
Arrieta made his major league debut with a quality start win against the Yankees at Camden Yards last July, and picked up another in the Bronx in September, but in between he struggled to strikeout more men than he walked, something that was as much the result of a surprisingly anemic strikeout rate as the some expected wildness. This year, the 25-year-old righty opened with a strong quality start against the Tigers, though he only struck out three in six innings, then got lit up by the Rangers despite striking out five in 3 1/3 frames.
Nova got off on the right foot this season with a quality start against the Twins, but his problems turning a lineup over returned in Boston on Saturday. To be fair, the Red Sox have a much tougher lineup, but Nove only retired two of six men his third time through in Boston before getting the hook, as opposed to his first start when he retired four of six and one other via a double play.
2010 Record: 66-96 .407
2010 Third-Order Record: 70-92 (.432)
Manager: Buck Showalter
General Manager: Andy MacPhail
Home Ballpark: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-102; LH HR-126
RH Avg-108; RH HR-121
Who's replacing whom:
• Derrek Lee replaces Ty Wigginton
• Mark Reynolds replaces Miguel Tejada and Garrett Atkins
• Vladimir Guerrero replaces Corey Patterson, Josh Bell (mL), and Nolan Reimold (mL)
• J.J. Hardy replaces most of Cesar Izturis's playing time (minus Hardy's time on the DL)
• Brian Roberts reclaims his playing time from Julio Lugo
• Jake Fox takes over Craig Tatum's playing time
• Zach Britton replaces Kevin Millwood
• Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman might combine to take over Brad Bergesen's starts
• Chris Jakubauskas is filling in for Brian Matusz (DL)
1B - Derrek Lee (R)
2B - Brian Roberts (S)
SS - Cesar Izturis (S)
3B - Mark Reynolds (R)
C - Matt Wieters (S)
RF - Nick Markakis (L)
CF - Adam Jones (R)
LF - Luke Scott (L)
DH - Vladimir Guerrero (R)
R - Jake Fox (UT/C)
L - Felix Pie (OF)
R - Robert Andino (IF)
R - Jeremy Guthrie
R - Chris Tillman
R - Brad Bergesen
R - Jake Arrieta
L - Zach Britton
R - Kevin Gregg
R - Koji Uehara
L - Mike Gonzalez
R - Jim Johnson
R - Jason Berken
R - Jeremy Accardo
R - Josh Rupe
R - Chris Jakubauskas
SS - J.J. Hardy (left oblique strain)
LHP - Brian Matusz (intercostal strain)
RHP - Justin Duchscherer (strained left hip)
RHP - Alfredo Simon
S - Brian Roberts (2B)
L - Nick Markakis (RF)
R - Derrek Lee (1B)
R - Vladimir Guerrero (DH)
L - Luke Scott (LF)
R - Adam Jones (CF)
R - Mark Reynolds (3B)
S - Matt Wieters (C)
S - Cesar Izturis (SS)