Is Brian Matusz a fantasy ace in the making?
It's funny how two people can look at the same thing and see something completely different. Take me and my wife, for example: She looks at our unmade bed and sees an item for her to-do list. I see a future napping opportunity.
I see a preview for a new Kate Hudson rom-com and roll my eyes. She pre-orders tickets online.
She looks at a spinach-leaf salad and sees a healthy meal. I see a pile of yardwork with salad dressing on it.
In the same way, some fantasy owners look at Brian Matusz and see a future fantasy ace worth reaching for on draft day. Others see a risky, inexperienced youngster who still has too many question marks to justify his average draft position.
There's no right or wrong here necessarily, as some fantasy owners are naturally more akin to taking risks on draft day, while others prefer to play it safe and rely on known commodities. Plus, there are many factors to consider when analyzing a player, particularly one who's spent just a little over a year at the big league level and just two seasons as a professional. Whether you fall in one camp or the other or are still undecided, determining the value of a young hurler like Matusz, who was arguably a top-10 prospect entering 2010, can be a beneficial exercise as we approach draft season.
Taken fourth overall by the Orioles in 2008, Matusz tore through the minors in 2009, going 11-2 with a 1.91 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 9.6 strikeouts-per-9 (K/9) rate in 19 starts between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. The O's called him up in August, and despite a 4.63 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in eight starts, he won five games and posted a solid 2.7 strikeouts-to-walk ratio (K/BB).
In 2010, Matusz joined Baltimore's rotation for good. The results, however, were largely a mixed bag. Like with many young hurlers, consistency was a problem. The 6-foot-5 southpaw opened the season with a 4.40 ERA in April and pitched well in June (3.69 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), but he looked overmatched in May and July. In May, Matusz held a 7.50 ERA and 2.00 WHIP, and opposing hitters hammered him to the tune of a .362 batting average. In June, a 7.2 walks-per-9 (BB/9) rate led to an 8.10 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in five starts.
Once the calendar flipped to August, the left-hander turned things around. In his final 11 starts, he won seven games with a 2.18 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, including a 7.5 K/9 rate and 2.3 BB/9 rate. That late-season performance is why many fantasy owners are targeting Matusz and expecting a breakout in 2011. But is it fair to expect that in just his second full big league season?
The struggles Matusz encountered last year aren't uncommon for rookies, especially considering he had only 113 minor league innings on his résumé, and none above Double-A. The growth he showed the final two months of the season is certainly a good sign, but expecting him to pitch at that level in 2011 without any speed bumps is probably unrealistic. After all, an extreme fly-ball pitcher like Matusz in the AL East can be a ticking time bomb if he encounters the same control issues that plagued him at times last season, and 11 starts, no matter how dominant they are -- can't simply erase last season's warts from our memories. The fact his average fastball velocity dropped from 91.5 mph in 2009 to 89.9 mph in 2010 is a mild concern, as well, and may force him to rely on it less in the future.
However, fantasy owners who get hung up on future upside and love filling their rotations with high-ceiling arms should put a star next to Matusz's name on their cheat sheets. Small sample size or not, that he was able to dominate AL hitters in his first full big league season at 23 years old despite never pitching at Triple-A says something about how far he's come in a short time. And while any young pitcher -- particularly one like Matusz with fly-ball tendencies -- has a small margin for error in the AL East, how the lefty fared against the division's big three in 2010 should ease some of that concern. In a combined 15 starts against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays, he posted a 7-4 record with a 3.20 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, including a 2.21 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in six starts at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. That kind of poise from a rookie pitcher can't be overstated.
Matusz may never consistently win enough games to be considered a true fantasy ace -- one fantasy owners can confidently build their staffs around -- but the Orioles did re-load their offense over the offseason. Opinions vary on just how much the O's improved, and it's still hard to see them finishing better than fourth in the AL East with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays expected to finish at the top of the division, in some order. Still, the lineup undoubtedly offers more punch than last year's version, with additions Vladimir Guerrero (.841 OPS in 2010), Derrek Lee (.774), Mark Reynolds (.753) and J.J. Hardy (.714) replacing Ty Wigginton (.727) and Garrett Atkins (.562) and taking at-bats away from guys like Cesar Izturis (.545) and Josh Bell (.526). And that doesn't even account for guys like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones, whose best years are still ahead. Even if the Orioles remain in the cellar of the AL East this season, they should still provide more consistent run support than they did last year, when they ranked second to last in the league with 613 runs.
Based on talent alone, Matusz has the makings of a top-tier fantasy starter. So if you're eyeing upside on draft day and are OK with the inevitable bumps in the road, then the 24-year-old is a great player to target. Others are better off tempering expectations in the short term as he tries to prove he can stay consistent over a full season. In short, there's definitely value here, and Matusz has the potential to be a real difference-maker as early as 2011 if everything breaks right. But counting on a true breakout coming in 2012 or 2013 is a safer bet.
Mike Sheets is a fantasy baseball analyst and contributor to ESPN.com