Mike Wright made his Oriole and Major League debut on Sunday, throwing 7 1/3 innings of shutout baseball as he made a sensational first impression. On Monday, Tyler Wilson was added to the active roster with Bud Norris heading to the disabled list. With Norris unavailable until May 26th, there is a solid chance that Wilson will make his major league debut working out of the bullpen sometime this next week.
Before Wright started on Sunday, it had been almost two years (May 23, 2013) since the last time an Oriole pitcher debut in a starting role. The O’s have had their fair share of first-time call ups the last two years, but with only a couple of notable exceptions (like Jonathan Schoop), debuting players during the past couple of seasons have largely been September call ups or role players. That says less about any deficiency in the Oriole’s farm system and speaks more to the fact that with a solid, healthy major league roster and quality veteran minor league depth, there has been less reason to draw from the rookie deck as in year’s past.
It was not very long ago – 2009 to be exact – when the organization routinely reached down to the minors to pluck out rookie players in hopes they could help turn around a struggling franchise. In 2009 alone, six starting pitchers made their major league debuts with the O’s. So did a trio of position players. In a season where the Birds finished in last place and won a mere 69 games, watching these young players start their major league careers was a rare bright spot. By the end of May, these debut games started to become highly anticipated events among those regularly heading out to Camden Yards. Each debut brought a sense of excitement but also provided a small ray of hope for the future. Watching young guys who had not yet proven to be below average major leaguers sure beat watching the has beens/never weres that were plentiful on the 2009 O’s roster.
Although not a rookie in the traditional sense, Koji Uehara got the “Year of the Debut” started when he took the mound in just the second game of the season on April 8th. Koji – who spent ten seasons with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League – was the first free agent signing the Oriole organization ever made from Japan. That alone made his first appearance a highly anticipated one and for his part, Koji did not disappoint. On a cold and rainy evening in Baltimore, Koji held the Yankees to just five hits and one run over five innings of work to earn the win in his first regular season start in North America. His season would end prematurely in June with an arm injury. That injury and general concerns about his conditioning would led to a move to the bullpen for the 2010 season (Uehara had pitched out of the bullpen in Japan for two seasons before signing with the O’s). Koji thrived in his new role, pitching to a 2.86 ERA in 44 innings of work in 2010 and a 1.72 ERA in 47 innings of work in 2011 for the O’s, while seeing his strikeout totals skyrocketed to over 11 per nine innings pitched. That success allowed the Andy MacPhail to trade Koji to the Texas Rangers at the 2011 trade deadline in exchange for future key contributors, Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis.
At the tail end of April, the first true rookie to debut was starting pitcher Brad Bergesen. Bergy was coming off of a notable 2008 season in AA, in which he won 15 games while pitching to a 3.22 ERA for the Eastern League champion Baysox. Brad was not much of a prospect. His low strikeout numbers and average stuff did not wow scouts, even as he proved to be a groundball machine in the minors. When Bergesen made his debut at home versus the Chicago White Sox on April 21st, fans generally welcomed the site of a potential upside starter over the likes of Mark Hendrickson and Rich Hill but his first outing lacked the anticipation that some of the later season debuts would have. What Bergy did do, however, was set the tone for those to come by earning the win with a solid 5 2/3 innings inning pitched. He he allowed just one earned run (three total runs). After an inauspicious start to his career (5.49 ERA in his first 7 career starts), the sinker baller went on a roll that started with his last start of May and lasted until his season came to a premature end due to a leg injury suffered at the end of July in a game versus the Kansas City Royals. During those final 12 starts of his season, Bergeson pitched to a 2.46 ERA while averaging exactly seven innings per start.
Brad was never quite the same after that injury. He hurt his pitching arm throwing game speed during a commercial shoot over the winter which only compounded the issues. After a solid season as a 4th/5th starter type in 2010, Bergesen struggled and by 2012 was out of Major League Baseball. He pitched in 2013 for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central League before retiring the following year.
Throughout the season, the Oriole brass appeared to make a conscious effort to call up as many of these first time players as they could when the team was at home. The given explanation was that it is less pressure to play at home, particularly for a starting pitcher. However as mentioned, the debuts quickly became anticipated events for the home fans during another otherwise lost season. Calling a player up while at OPACY had just as much to do with ticket selling factors likely as it did with keeping the players comfortable.
Nolan Reimold became the first 2009 Oriole to debut on the road when he started in left field on May 14th at Kauffman Stadium. Bergesen was called up after only four starts in AAA because the Orioles needed a starting pitcher. It was more out of necessity than anything else. Reimold, however, forced his way to the majors. The 25 year old fringe “Top 100” prospect built off of a very good 2008 season (.868 OPS in AA) by hitting a ridiculous .394/.485/.743 with nine homeruns in his first 130 plate appearances with the Norfolk Tides. That performance was impossible to ignore, which earned Reimold a promotion to Baltimore a month and a half into the season.
Nolan picked up one hit in his debut in Kansas City. After a long road trip, he made his first Oriole Park start on Memorial Day versus the Blue Jays, with family and friends in the stands holding a large “Reimold’s Roost” banner to celebrate the occasion. Nolan picked up a hit and drew a walk in his first game in Baltimore. Once he got his feet wet, Reimold never looked back. He finished the season with a sparkling .279/.365/.466 line and 15 homeruns. It was the best 2009 season of any of the O’s rookies. Nolan looked to be part of the future in Baltimore, but struggled out of the gate in 2010 which earned him a premature demotion to the minors. After a strong 2011 season (in which he played a vital role in the Game #162 upset of the Red Sox) and a hot start to the 2012 season, Nolan injured himself diving into the stands in Chicago and has never been the same player since. Two spinal surgeries later, Reimold is playing for the Tides in an attempt to resurrect his major league career.
On May 26th, Brad Bergesen was joined by fellow 2008 Baysox teammate Jason Berken in Baltimore’s starting rotation. Like Bergesen, Berken enjoyed a strong 2008 minor league season which got him on the radar in Baltimore but he was not at all a top shelf prospect. The former Clemson Tiger was solid in his debut, allowing two earned runs over five innings versus the Blue Jays in route to his first major league victory. Unlike Bergesen and Reimold, it was largely downhill from there for Berken. He finished the season with a ghastly 6.54 ERA. He spent the next two seasons in the Orioles’ bullpen. His last major league appearance came in 2012 and he is currently pitching for the Phillies’ AAA team in Lehigh Valley.
For obvious reasons, Berken’s debut did not carry a huge amount of interest (in fact, it was the only home debut we missed seeing live that season). Jason Berken’s debut game is probably less know for that and more well known for being the night the organization announced another debut. During the MASN broadcast of the game, General Manager Andy MacPhail told viewers that baseball’s top prospect – catcher Matt Wieters – would be called up to start behind the plate that Friday (May 28th) versus the Detroit Tigers.
Wieters was a man among boys in the minors. He crushed the competition in the Carolina and Eastern Leagues during the 2008 regular season, had a solid Arizona Fall League campaign, and had an .890 OPS for Norfolk at the time of his call up. In terms of sheer anticipation, Wieter’ debut dwarfed the rest. The team sold thousands of tickets following the announcement. On Friday, an afternoon shower gave way to an early evening rainbow over OPACY. Wieters was viewed by many as the savior of the organization – a true cornerstone position player that could be built around. When he walked up to the plate for his first at bat, he was greeted with a full blown standing ovation. That has become more commonplace for hyped rookies in the years since, but was far less usual back in 2009. Matt did not get a hit in his first game, but it would be difficult to argue that his debut wasn’t the best of the bunch for the excitement it generated if nothing else.
Wieters’ call up was such a gigantic deal in Baltimore that it served to almost completely overshadow right-handed pitcher David Hernandez’s debut the night before. Hernandez was in the same class as Bergesen and Berken coming up through the minors, but carried a fastball and strikeout ability that those two lacked. Hernandez averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings during his pro career prior to his call up. In his first major league start, he struck out only three batters in 5 2/3 innings, but also allowed just five hits and one earned run to get the victory. It was the fourth victory by an Oriole rookie pitcher in their major league debut on the season. Similar to Berken, Hernandez struggled the rest of the season and ended 2009 with a 5.40 ERA. He moved to the bullpen during the 2010 season and found his role as a reliever. He was traded that winter to Arizona for Mark Reynolds and went onto have very good seasons in both 2011 and 2012 as Arizona’s setup man. Unfortunately, arm injuries have threatened to derail his career. Hernandez is currently rehabbing with Arizona’s A+ affiliate in an attempt to make it back to the majors.
For those keeping track, that’s three starting pitchers so far that the organization called up during the first two months of the 2009 season. Finding quality starting pitching was clearly an issue and it only got worse when both Koji and Bergesen went down with injuries in June and July, respectively. Despite a strong 2008 season in Bowie and a very good 18 starts for Norfolk in 2009 (2.70 ERA with a 3.81 SO/BB ration), the Orioles probably would have preferred to leave 21 year old Chris Tillman in the minors for the entire season. Someone had to start games in Baltimore, however, so Tillman was summoned to the majors on July 29th to start against the Kansas City Royals.
Tillman became the first 2009 Oriole rookie starter not to win his debut game. He last just 4 2/3’s innings while allowing three solo homeruns. The Orioles won the game 7-3, but Tillman failed to get the win by virtue of lasting less than five innings. That start was a harbinger of things to come. Tillman showed signs of his considerable upside at times during the season, but stumbled down the stretch and finished with a 5.40 ERA. He would bounce back-and-forth between Baltimore and Norfolk in 2010 and 2011, never being able to replicate his minor league success against major league hitters. Out of options, the Orioles left Tilly in the minors in 2012, until he was needed to make a July 4th start versus the Mariners. Tillman was brilliant in that outing and never looked back, turning into the team’s best starter for the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Similar to Tillman, the Orioles probably would have preferred to have kept Brian Matusz in the minors for the entire 2009 season. After all, it was his first professional season after being drafted out of San Diego State in 2008. The Orioles made Matusz their first round pick in the amateur draft that year in large part because he was viewed as a polished, near Major League ready pitcher. His minor league performance did nothing to disprove that theory. In 113 innings between A+ and AA, Matusz struck out 27% of the batters he faced and cruised to a 1.93 ERA. Matusz was ready for the show and the Orioles were ready to get a look at him. They called him up on August 4th to make a start in Detroit. Matusz was good enough that day to earn his first major league win as he completed five innings while allowing just one run. He would struggle over his next several outings before a strong finish to the season had Orioles fans imaging a rotation with him at the top in 2010. Of course, things did not exactly work out for Brian as a starter but he has forged a nice career as a lefty reliever.
The one 2009 debut not already mentioned belonged to second baseman Justin Turner, who appeared in 12 games as a September call up.
In all, the Orioles used six rookie starters during the 2009 season. Those six combined to make 94 of the team’s 162 starts (58%) and put up a collective ERA of 4.98. Those are not good numbers but are not terrible, especially considering they were put up by pitchers who were largely fringe Major Leaguers or players who were rushed to the big leagues.
Matusz, Bergesen, Hernandez and Tillman (along with Jake Arrieta and Troy Patton) were infamously labeled “The Calvary” by former manager Dave Trembley in between the 2008 and 2009 seasons. The group nickname was a compliment and was supposed to speak to the idea that those young, minor league pitchers were the reinforcements that fans had been waiting years for. Unfortunately, “The Calvary” nickname has become a bit of a joke around Baltimore due to the feeling that none of those pitchers panned out. I still read articles today that insist this group of pitchers were a complete failure. That is not a fair assessment.
Hernandez and Patton both put up several seasons of above average numbers out of the bullpen, even if Hernandez did the bulk of his work in Arizona. Matusz had a reasonably valuable sophomore season as a starter and has been a quality reliever since making the transition during the 2012 season. Bergeson’s one very good season and one okay season was probably as much as we should have reasonably been expected of him. Arrieta struggled for a while but has turned himself into a quality starter over the past calendar year with the Cubs. Tillman – of course – has worked out just fine with back-to-back high quality seasons. In other words, all six – including the four who were rookies in 2009 – had at least one season where they added significant value to a major league team. Given the odds of any prospects working out, that’s pretty good. No team hits on six prospects all at once. That the Orioles got significant contributions from five out of the six (and were able to use Arrieta as a trade trip) is certainly a win.
Hopefully the 2015 Orioles can avoid having to call up many more rookies beyond Wright and Wilson. While the 2009 season was my favorite post-1997 and pre-2012 season as an Oriole fan mainly due to the number of debuts we got to see, watching the players already on the roster play well while the team wins games is a lot more fun.