Left-handed relief pitcher Brian Matusz was originally slated to be activated from the disabled list by the Orioles last weekend, but he instead will continue a minor-league rehab assignment with one more appearance this week, manager Buck Showalter told reporters in Texas.
After allowing seven earned runs in his first three appearances with Double-A Bowie, Matuz gave up only one run in three innings for Single-A Frederick on Friday night, but his shaky performance makes up only part of the early-season predicament. The Orioles entered Saturday with an 8-2 record, but they’ve leaned heavily on their bullpen as they rank 13th in the AL in starter ERA and have averaged a league-worst 5.0 innings per start through their first 10 games.
Manager Buck Showalter would clearly like to see his starters get deeper into games, but Matusz’s absence has allowed the Orioles to carry an additional long reliever in the bullpen, which has proven to be useful early in the season. The southpaw’s return would likely mean T.J. McFarland or Tyler Wilson being optioned to the minor leagues, giving Baltimore less length when starters are knocked out early.
Matusz began the season on the 15-day DL with a left intercostal strain that hindered him for much of the spring.
So far this season, the Orioles have lacked a lefty specialist — a role in which Matusz has been effective over the last four years — but adding another reliever who can’t be sent to the minor leagues brings less flexibility to a bullpen with four other pitchers out of options. Matusz was respectable against right-handed hitters in 2015 by holding them to a .244 average, but they have batted .299 with an .853 on-base plus slugging percentage against him in his career, which limits the situations in which Showalter would ideally use him.
With late-inning options in right-handers Darren O’Day and Brad Brach who fare very well against batters from both sides of the plate, one could argue that a lefty specialist only facing a batter or two is more of a luxury than a real need in a bullpen that will likely be forced to handle plenty of innings in 2016. Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen the Orioles try to stretch Matusz out in his last two rehab outings.
Making $3.9 million in his final season before becoming a free agent, Matusz could be activated next weekend in Kansas City, but it’s fair to ask whether his skill set is the best fit for a bullpen already sporting plenty of talent in the late innings but needing to do more work early in games. He’ll be capable of getting out a tough lefty bat or two from time to time, but Matusz will likely need to give the Orioles some contributions in the middle innings to be a valuable member of the bullpen.
And that helps explain why the Orioles haven’t been in a hurry to activate the 29-year-old, who hasn’t exactly impressed during his rehab assignment anyway.