When the Baltimore Orioles made the daring decision to break camp this spring with a frighteningly young and inexperienced starting rotation -- with an average age of 26 years 8 months, and with only Sidney Ponson having pitched an entire season in the majors -- the front office's goals for this fivesome were modest: Give the team six or seven innings consistently, enough to keep their bullpen fresh and give their potent offense a chance to carry the team.
But six weeks into the Orioles' season, not even those modest goals have been met. When Ponson shut out the Anaheim Angels on five hits in a nationally televised win Sunday night, it marked the first time an Orioles starter had pitched into the seventh inning and recorded at least one out since April 29 -- a remarkable string of futility made all the more remarkable by the fact the team managed to go 5-8 in that span, rather than completely collapsing under the weight of the rotation's ineffectiveness.
"I would say that they haven't pitched as well as we'd hoped," Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie said. "But we also knew it was a work in progress and that there would be ups and downs. There are always some disappointments, things you were counting on that do not pan out."
As the Orioles (18-16) prepare to open a six-game West Coast trip on Tuesday night in Seattle, it is clear the team is already rethinking its decision to entrust such an important part of the game to such a raw group of pitchers.
Forty percent of the team's Opening Day rotation is now gone, at least temporarily -- Matt Riley is on the disabled list with a stiff shoulder, and Kurt Ainsworth is in Class AAA Ottawa. Riley was replaced by rookie Daniel Cabrera, who shut out the Chicago White Sox for six innings in his major league debut and who will make his second start on Tuesday night.
Ainsworth's utter ineffectiveness (9.68 ERA in seven starts) forced the team to make a move it had long resisted -- moving right-hander Rodrigo Lopez, the ace of the bullpen with a 3-1 record, a 0.33 ERA and a bevy of game-saving performances, into the starting rotation.
"We'll be giving up something, with the way he's helped the club when starters have left early," Beattie said. "He's been able to change the complexion of some games. But it's something we feel we need to do. . . . No doubt, the bullpen has been outstanding, probably a lot better than anyone could have expected."
Looking at the statistics, it is clear a change was needed. Despite Ponson's shutout Sunday night, Orioles starters have the highest ERA (6.05) in the American League (in the majors, only the Colorado Rockies' is higher). That compares with a 3.03 ERA for the Orioles' bullpen.
Even more damning is the fact the Orioles' rotation, despite pitching the fewest innings (195), has issued more walks (96) than any other in the league.
"We said early on they'd go through some growing pains, and they have," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "And hopefully they're learning from this by now. When you talk about pitch counts and getting deeper into games, they're aware of that. Those are the growing pains. It's not lack of trying."
The walks are directly related to the lack of innings, since Orioles starters routinely wind up with pitch counts in the nineties by the fifth inning, ensuring early departures.
"All those walks means they're throwing too many pitches, and that's why they can't get past the fifth inning," Beattie said. "They have to figure that out. We saw the command in spring training, but we haven't seen it during the season. There's two things it could be. They may be giving major league hitters too much credit, thinking they have to be too fine with their pitches.
"Or they may be listening to scouting reports and trying to pitch to the scouting reports from the beginning, rather than pitching their game."
Beattie also thinks the Orioles' young starters have suffered because five rainouts and frequent off-days in the season's early weeks have made it almost impossible to keep the five-man rotation on regular rest. For instance, when he was demoted Saturday, Ainsworth had made only three of his seven starts on the regular four days' rest.
"When you're a young pitcher and you're not getting regular work, it's different than with a veteran pitcher. It's hard for them to develop any consistency," Beattie said. "We would have liked for them to be more consistent by this point, but there's still time for that."