The Washington Times - September 4, 2008, 12:10AM

By JAY LeBLANC
September 4, 2008

The once-proud Baltimore Orioles haven’t made a postseason appearance since 1997 and have failed to so much as post a winning record during that span. More than a decade of free agent busts, subpar drafts, steroid scandals and general futility has O’s fans desperate for signs of progress, and the big league team once again failed to deliver in 2008. However, there is hope on the horizon. Baltimore’s losing ways have had the positive side-effect of providing the team with high choices in the annual draft, and the front office’s new-found willingness to select and subsequently pay up for top amateur talent is starting to pay dividends.

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When Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters - the best positional player available in the 2007 draft - began to slip because of signability concerns, the Orioles pounced at the No. 5 spot and signed him to a deal that included a $6 million bonus just before the deadline. He’s emerged as the top prospect in all of baseball this season by hitting .355 with 27 home runs while splitting time between advanced Class A and double-A. Texas Christian ace right-hander Jake Arrieta slid to the fifth round of last year’s draft for the same reason, and the O’s - sensing an opportunity to land another first-round talent - took him and signed him for a fifth-round record $1.1 million bonus. Arrieta has rewarded the team for its gamble by earning Carolina League Pitcher of the Year honors in his first pro season. This year, University of San Diego lefty Brian Matusz was the consensus top pitcher available, but Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Kansas City all passed, in part because of signability concerns. Unwilling to pass up the chance to land a potential staff ace, the Orioles took Matusz with the fourth overall pick and signed him to a major league deal including a $3.2 million bonus just hours before the deadline.

Matusz was on the prospect radar even before he earned third-team All-American honors as a high school senior in Phoenix and certainly has all the makings of a future star. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim selected him in the fourth round of the 2005 draft, but Matusz declined their offer and headed off to the University of San Diego to experience college life and refine his craft. It didn’t take long for the 6’ 4”, 200-pounder to make an impact with the Toreros, as he posted a respectable 4.25 ERA as a freshman while fanning 93 batters in 89 innings of work. Matusz took a huge step forward in 2007, going 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA and an impressive 163 strikeouts - as oppossed to just 37 walks - in 123 college innings and then 3-1 with a 1.33 ERA in four starts with the U.S. National Team. Matusz entered the 2008 season as the top-rated pitcher in college baseball and went on to enjoy his best season yet. With big league scouts watching his every move, he went 12-2 with a sparkling 1.71 ERA and fanned 141 hitters in 105 innings of work while issuing just 22 free passes.

Because Matusz signed a major league contract, he’s already on the 40-man roster and his minor league options will expire after the 2012 season. However, with his projectable frame, collegiate experience, four-pitch arsenal and impeccable control, it would be a major disappointment if he wasn’t ready long before that becomes an issue. The Orioles recently assigned Matusz to the short-season Class A Aberdeen IronBirds, but he won’t appear in any games; instead, he’ll work out with the team and begin a throwing program to prepare him for instructional league and possibly a stint in the Arizona Fall League. If all goes well, Matusz will likely begin next season with the advanced Class A Frederick Keys, like polished college stars Wieters and Arrieta did this season. I recently had a chance to speak with the 21-year-old:

Q: You were drafted out of high school but elected to go to college instead of sign. Was it a difficult decision to go to college instead of going pro?

A: Oh, absolutely. When that type of money is flashed in front of an 18-year-old’s face, I mean, it’s real tough to turn down. But deep down inside I knew I wanted to go to college. I knew I wanted to have at least three years to have that experience, and it ended up being a great decision.

Q: Negotiations went right up to the deadline. Were you confident all along that something would get done, or were you concerned that you might not be able to agree to terms?

A: No, I knew from the beginning that we were going to get it done. I wasn’t asking for anything that was record-breaking, or anything that wasn’t a right fit. I knew that we were going to come to terms, but it was going to come down to the end. I knew that, my agent knew that, and [Orioles GM Andy] McPhail and [scouting director] Joe Jordan knew that it was going to come down to the end, but we were making good progress. We worked well together, and I’m glad that we were able to make a deal.

Q: What was the Orioles’ purpose for assigning you to Aberdeen without the intention of having you pitch?

A: It’s just a great experience for me to get out here, experience minor league ball, meet a lot of the guys, be able to play in such a great ballpark and just be around the game. And to start my throwing, start working out a little bit so I can get ready for instructs and hopefully Arizona Fall League.

Q: So you don’t know for sure whether you’ll be playing in the Arizona Fall League yet?

A: Not yet. It hasn’t been determined. I’m hoping to play in the Arizona Fall League, but if not, Hawaii [Winter Baseball] is an option too.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the different pitches you throw and how you like to use them?

A: I throw a two-seam and four-seam fastball; I throw a changeup, a curveball and a slider. I use the slider as more of an out-pitch; the curveball I can use as an out-pitch as well as a set-up pitch - I feel like I’ve got very good command of it. My changeup I like to use at any time in the count; just depending on the hitter, I like to throw it to both lefties and righties. And obviously the fastball is the same thing - it can be a set-up pitch, it could be an out-pitch … whatever is working that day. A good day for me is when I have everything going my way and I have a lot of options to work with.

Q: Do you consider yourself a strikeout pitcher, a guy who pitches to contact, or some mixture of the two?

A: Well, I had a lot of success in college with strikeouts. I led the country my junior year, and I was second my sophomore year in strikeouts. I had a lot of strikeouts throughout my career, and that was one thing we pitched for and really tried to do in college was pitch for the strikeout. Pitching to aluminum bats, we wanted to prevent other guys from hitting it. But it might be a little bit different out here. I’ll work with my coaches, and hopefully I’ll be able to pitch in to guys a lot more and get jam-shots. We’ll just see how it goes - I’m just trying to get in shape and get ready to get out there.

Q: Is there any pitcher, past or present, that you either look up to or try to model your approach after?

A: It’s tough to say. There’s guys in the major leagues that I look up to a lot - a guy like Cole Hamels, who has a similar body to me, throws a lot of similar pitches and works off his changeup a lot, throws in the low 90s. It’s a type of guy like that that I like to watch and emulate, and see if I could one day be in his shoes.

Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Orioles?

A: Well … I’m ready to start my career in the minor leagues and be ready to develop, tone up every aspect of my game and get out there when I’m ready. There’s no need to rush me, but whenever it’s a good time, and that’s for the organization to decide.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees.