The Baltimore Orioles enjoyed a night of "firsts" Thursday.
It was the team's first win against the New York Yankees in 11 games. Converted starting pitcher David Hernandez earned his first save. Utilityman Scott Moore hit his first home run of the year and first in the majors since 2008. Even Luke Scott hit his first triple of the year! But the night will probably be remembered as the first of the Jake Arrieta era. The 24-year-old right-hander was promoted from Triple-A Norfolk and beat the Yankees 4-3, allowing four hits and three runs over six innings.
I've really tried to think positively about this season's Orioles, notably their young pitching, but it hasn't been easy for the team with baseball's worst record. Sure, someday soon Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman will form the basis for an interesting rotation both in real-life and fantasy baseball, and if the Orioles can get health (Brian Roberts) and improvement (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters) on offense, this is an organization that certainly could turn into a winner again. I don't view the Orioles as being a hopeless situation, not with this young core.
But from a fantasy aspect, I also don't want to deal with the growing pains this young Baltimore rotation -- well, Kevin Millwood isn't young, but he's also on the trading block -- is sure to deal with this season. These guys aren't Stephen Strasburg, you know. Matusz has terrific stuff; he's a potential ace of the staff. But the 23-year-old lefty is getting worn down from repeatedly facing top offenses. His ERA is over 5.00, and he hasn't won in 10 starts. Tillman, a 6-foot-5 right-hander stolen in the Erik Bedard deal, should be a major strikeout option, but his 12 starts with the big club last season featured a lot of home runs and few whiffs, and he's getting knocked around this season as well. I like both Matusz and Tillman more than Arrieta for this season and long-term, and I think most scouts would concur.
Arrieta is not overpowering; he's more of a nibbler who has battled command issues and will need a strong defense. He's not going to strike out hitters the way Matusz and Tillman figure to. On Thursday, Arrieta pitched out of trouble and worked around four walks, two of them intentional. Giving him full credit for the performance, it's still noteworthy that he didn't face an injured Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira has been downright awful. Most nights the Yankees won't struggle so much with runners in scoring position (they were 1-for-5 in that scenario Thursday).
Therein lies the second big problem for fantasy owners, other than how dangerous it is to trust most rookie pitchers: Arrieta pitches in a division with the three highest-scoring offenses in the game (Yankees, Red Sox and Rays), and the other team (the Blue Jays) has only recently slumped to seventh. There are few easy outs for Orioles pitchers, and the offensive support isn't close to there, as only the Pittsburgh Pirates have scored fewer runs.
For ESPN standard (10-team) mixed leagues, I don't think Matusz, Tillman or Arrieta are worthy of being owned this season, but I'd certainly be interested in all of them in keeper leagues, in that order. It just takes time. Arrieta, added in 0.6 percent of ESPN standard leagues, likely will face the San Francisco Giants on the road in his next outing, and let's face it, that's not so awful. It beats facing an AL East team. In AL-only leagues, you have to take a long look before adding him. But he's not likely to enter the top 75 for mixed-league starting pitchers anytime soon.
Frankly, on this night of firsts for the Orioles, the most noteworthy performance for fantasy purposes was probably Hernandez being given the save opportunity and retiring Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher with the tying run on base to get it. Alfredo Simon and/or Mike Gonzalez could get back into the equation as well, but when debating what has the most value in a shallow one-year league, even with Arrieta possessing interesting mid-rotation upside he could realize as soon as 2011, the immediate saves are more valuable.