Does he have a chance to be a major-league starter?
Johnson was the less-well-known piece (along with Josh Bell) acquired when the Orioles traded George Sherrill. When the Orioles got him in 2009, he was 21 and the Orioles assigned him to AA Bowie, where he posted a 2.89 ERA in 38 innings. The Orioles had no opening in AAA Norfolk in 2010, and Johnson was still just 22, so they reassigned him to Bowie for 2010, and he posted a 5.09 ERA in 145 innings. The Orioles sent him back to Bowie for 2011, and in ten starts (58 innings) he posted a 2.16 ERA. With the Norfolk pitching staff in disarray, Johnson was called up. At first, he was terrible, seemingly afraid to throw strikes early in the count and then being forced to groove pitches. Because the Orioles had no other options, they kept Johnson in the rotation, and he began to pitch with more confidence and better results, although his overall AAA numbers aren’t impressive (2-7, 5.56 ERA, 101 hits allowed in 87 innings, 47 walks and 63 strikeouts.) At the end, he actually outpitched Braves’ star prospect Julio Teheran (OK, so it was a one-inning start in a game interrupted by rain, but Johnson’s 1 0 0 0 0 2 is better than Teheran’s 1 1 0 0 0 2).
Barring an unbelievably good spring training, Johnson has no chance of making the Orioles out of spring training, nor does he deserve to be considered a good prospect. He gives up too many hits and doesn’t strike out enough batters. But many teams have a pitcher who just plugs along, slowly moving up the ranks, eventually proving he deserves a shot. And sometimes they take advantage of their shot; Ivan Nova of the Yankees is that sort of pitcher. Johnson might prove to be that guy for the Orioles, the guy who comes up when there’s no other options and turns it into a decent career.
Who is he?
A big (6’5″, 210 lb.) outfielder, promoted from Frederick in the last few days of the season to help the Tides play out the string. Apparently, he was promoted because his absence wouldn’t hurt Frederick (or Bowie) in its playoff push. His 348 at-bats in 2011 were a career high. In 2010, he did hit .285 / .369 / .516 as a 24-year-old in a half-season at Frederick; but he followed that up with a .170 / .226 / .299 2011 half-season at Frederick; so it’s unlikely that his promotion indicates that he’s considered a top prospect. He’ll likely be released before the 2012 season begins.
Is his nickname “Orange”?
Not to my knowledge.
What happened to him? Can he come back and help the Orioles?
Matusz, who pitched Orioles’ rotation in the second half of 2009 and all of 2010 as essentially a league-average pitcher, hurt himself at the end of spring training in 2011 and missed the first two months of the season. When he returned, he had a terrible 2011 season; 1-9 with a 10.69 ERA in 12 starts, with 18 home runs allowed in less than 50 innings.
While I’m sure there’s been someone that young who’s had that bad of a season before, I can’t think of anyone. Most pitchers who have seasons that bad are either old-line veterans clearly at the end of the line, or pitchers (like Steve Blass in 1973) suffering from Steve Blass Syndrome. Matusz’ control wasn’t great, but it wasn’t Blass-bad; and he’s not a pitcher with an established track record (like, say, 1995 Mike Moore, although Moore’s season, though terrible, wasn’t as terrible as Matusz’. )
It’s tempting to attribute the season to his injury, but that explanation has a problem — Matusz actually pitched fairly well in his first few starts. Then he started struggling; he was sent to Norfolk; was recalled in September, and continued to pitch terribly. So, unless he was simply out of condition and wore down after a few starts, the injury doesn’t appear to be the reason he was so ineffective.
I saw him pitch two games in Norfolk — one on his injury rehab in late May and one after he was sent down. In each case, his line looked a lot better than he did — he got batters out consistently, but he didn’t look dominant. He struck batters out (7 in 5 innings, 6 in 7 innings), walked one batter in each start, and didn’t give up a lot of hits — but somehow, I didn’t watch him pitch and say “Wow! This guy is really good!”
My guess — and it’s only a guess – is that Matusz felt a lot of pressure to be a star. When he struggled, he felt more pressure to be outstanding, causing him to try to make perfect pitches. Then, when he continued to struggle, the Orioles sent him down to Norfolk instead of keeping him in the rotation and easing the pressure.
As I wrote earlier, there’s not much precedent for a year like Matusz’. If all goes well, he can be an effective, above-average innings eater. I don’t think he’ll ever be a great pitcher.
Who is he?
At first glance, based on his Norfolk performance, he’s just another AAA middle relief type. He pitched at age 26 in 2011, and his AAA numbers are completely uninteresting — 40 hits allowed in 39 innings; 4 home runs allowed in 39 innings; a 17-27 BB/K ratio. And based on visual inspection, there was nothing to alter that perception. He had a low-90′s fastball, non-notable breaking stuff, and basically served as a low-leverage relief innings eater.
However, the rest of his minor-league record is more interesting. He was drafted in a late round out of a small school, and didn’t pitch a full season in full-season ball until his third season. He racked up reasonably good ratios as an overage starter in Low-A and as a swingman in High-A, and then pitched brilliantly in AA in 2011 before being promoted. If he could pitch at that level at AAA, he might be a decent middle reliever.
2012 is a crucial season. If he can pitch in AAA the way he did in lower levels, he’s got a chance. If he can’t, he’s a good candidate to be released at some point during the season. Of course, the Orioles may decide that he doesn’t have a future and release him before the 2012 season.
What are the Orioles’ plans for him?
I have no idea. After a fairly good 2010 season as a starting pitcher in Norfolk recovering from an injury, Patton began 2011 in Norfolk pitching relief. At the time, we thought that Patton was being groomed as a relief pitcher. However, the Tides used Patton very erratically — he would be used one game as a left-handed one-out relief pitcher, then two days later used to make a spot start. That would argue that he had completely fallen out of the Orioles’ plans — except then he was called up to Baltimore in mid-July and stayed with the Orioles the rest of the season, pitching effectively out of the bullpen. But he wasn’t a one-out lefty specialist; he pitched 30 innings in 20 games. He pretty obviously was used in low-leverage situations and pitched effectively. The logical plan would be to see if he could be more effective in a higher-leverage role, say as a seventh-inning middle reliever. I don’t think he has the stuff to be an effective set-up man or closer, and he’s too good to be pigeonholed as a lefty specialist.
If I were running the Orioles, I’d keep trying to develop Patton as a starting pitcher. It’s true that he hasn’t been extremely effective as a starting pitcher, but he has been reasonably effective and has survived a full year in the rotation. It’s pretty obvious that the Orioles have a problem with their starting pitching. Why gamble on retreads like Chris Jakubauskas or Alfredo Simon and turn Patton into a middle reliever?It makes no sense; not that there’s been any evidence that the Orioles know what they’re doing.
Will he develop into a useful pitcher?
Orioles fans may remember Pelzer as the player the team got from the Padres when they unloaded Miguel Tejada in 2010. Prior to the 2010 season, Baseball America rated him as a top ten prospect in the Padres’ farm system, and Orioles fans were hoping that they got a good pitcher for the future.
In retrospect, Pelzer’s prospect status said more about how barren the Padres’ system was than about how good Pelzer was. He was coming off two pretty good seasons as a starting pitcher in A-Ball, but at ages 22 and 23. Promoted to AA, he lost his control and was shifted to the bullpen; then was traded to Baltimore; then continued to struggle with his control. His walk-to-strikeout ratios in the last two seasons have been 63-103 (2010) and 54-72 (2011). He’s walking more than five batters per nine innings, which is inadequate. When he throws as hard as he can, he loses his control; when he tries to control his pitches, he becomes very hittable.
Pelzer’ll be 26 in 2012 and has yet to have mastered Double-A. He may start 2012 in Norfolk just for a change of scenery or because there’s nobody better; he hasn’t earned it by his performance. At this point, he doesn’t project to have much of a major league career.