With Brian Matusz bunting a ball off his face yesterday, we take a minute to look at whether the Orioles need starting pitching depth, and if they do, what to do about it. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
Over the first month and a half of the season, the starting pitching of the Orioles was the biggest thing propelling them into their run at the top of the American League East. At one point in the season, there was a statistic that the O's had a record of 21-1 when their starting pitcher recorded a quality start. They were notching these with regularity, rather than the few-and-far-between kind of thing Orioles fans were used to seeing in recent years. Thanks to strong results from new acquisitions Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, they were among the leaders as a team, if not quite at the top.
Fast forward another month, and some of the issues with starting pitching that we feared - and that led me to predict a 70-win season - have become apparent. Now, the superlative ERAs of Hammel and Chen have raised, respectively, to 3.22 and 3.68, and as a staff, the Orioles starters have a 4.67 ERA. For a while they were up with the best, but that ERA is now good for 4th-worst in the AL. With the staff having thrown 356.1 IP in the O's 61 games, they are now averaging less than 6 innings pitched per start, as well. While this represents an improvement over last year's abysmal numbers - about half an inning more, on average - it still leaves the O's with a slightly below-average rotation in terms of how deep they go into games.
Add in to this mix the fact that the Orioles have had to play more extra innings than any other team in MLB and you've got a bullpen that's throwing the third-most innings in baseball. Manager Buck Showalter recently dismissed this as a concern, saying that he wasn't worried about bullpen overuse because he can go to any number of guys who have been trustworthy options. Take out Kevin Gregg and the entire bullpen has an ERA below 4, with four pitchers having ERAs below 2. The 2.42 bullpen ERA is still the best in MLB and so far it hasn't showed any signs of fraying.
However, that the Orioles starters are beginning to falter cannot be denied. Tommy Hunter has twice been optioned to Norfolk due to poor performance, though he keeps finding himself recalled to Baltimore to continue gracing us with his 5.40 ERA thanks to the way things have played out. In a similar vein, Jake Arrieta and his 6.32 ERA were sent to the bullpen for him to "work out his issues", which really means we are one Brian Matusz bunting practice mishap - exactly what occurred yesterday - from Jake suddenly finding himself back in the rotation.
Matusz himself represents a third question. While a streak of great starts had him chasing towards getting his ERA below 4, he's fallen back slightly, now sitting at a 4.82, and he may not start today as a result of that failed bunt off of his face. Interleague!
Taking all of that into consideration, the question we have to ask ourselves - and that the Orioles should be asking themselves - is: are the Orioles in need of starting pitching depth?
Though every time there is some kind of fluke injury that may result in a skipped start, we have heard the beat writers mention just about every possible name from the Norfolk Tides as a potential starter, it's telling that, ultimately, Hunter has been re-summoned without ever spending much time there. Pitchers who have started more than nine games for the Tides include Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, Jason Berken - in essence, the prime contributors to bad Orioles starting rotations in either 2009 or 2011, if not both - as well as Steve Johnson, recently added to the 40-man roster to prevent him opting out of his contract.
Bergesen and Tillman both have 4+ ERAs at Norfolk. Berken has a 2.52 ERA in his 12 AAA starts, but there is a simple reason he's at AAA: he's probably not good enough to pitch in MLB, unless he can rediscover whatever let him manage a 3.03 ERA in relief in 2010, prior to hurting his shoulder. Johnson has a 3.40 ERA for Norfolk. These guys plus Jamie Moyer are the Orioles' depth. That's the kind of stuff that could give someone nightmares.
If you think about it, though, this was the plan of Dan Duquette for this season: stockpile a bunch of cheap and mostly replaceable parts so if one of them breaks, or sucks, you can just swap in another one. If Hunter and Arrieta keep underperforming, then eventually the guys I mentioned above the names who will be cycling through Baltimore, and maybe one of them can harness some kind of vaguely-league-average-starter magic for the remainder of the season. It's not an appetizing scenario, but we wouldn't blink if this happened and the Orioles' record was 29-32 instead of 35-26. We would think, "Well, that's exactly what was supposed to happen."
Instead, with the Orioles sitting at 9 games over .500 and maybe liking to stay there, we get stories like a Ken Rosenthal article where "one rival executive wonders if the Orioles will try to improve their rotation by packaging left-hander Brian Matusz in a deal for a more established starter." Yes, I bet a rival executive would like that very much! I am embarrassed for myself that I have even brought up this article. I feel like I've shamed Camden Chat by mentioning it. This throwaway sentence, this speculation by another team about what the Orioles may or may not do with the still-promising (if enigmatic) Matusz, is not something that anyone should take seriously.
None of which is to say that the Orioles don't need starting pitching depth. Of course they need starting pitching depth. Every team needs starting pitching depth. The team with the best starter ERA in baseball is the Washington Nationals, and this is the rotation in their AAA affiliate, the Syracuse Chiefs: Yunesky Maya, Zach Duke, John Lannan, Mitch Atkins and Tanner Roark. The Nationals don't want any of those guys starting in MLB. That's why they're in AAA. But they're one freak injury away from needing one of those guys.
It's June 13. The season is more than 1/3 over, and the halfway point isn't far off. At this stage in the game, starting pitching depth doesn't grow on trees. Sure, the Orioles would love it if Moyer, freed from the oppressive mile high environment of Denver, were to discover some fountain of youth. They, and we, would love it if it turned out that Miguel Gonzalez was a diamond in the rough, or if Tillman ever showed us why Andy MacPhail got him in the Bedard trade.
Every team, every fanbase, has their players like this. But you don't see sentences like, "One rival executive wonders if the Yankees might try to improve their rotation by packaging Ivan Nova in a deal for a more established starter." That would be stupid. The Yankees, much as we hate them, are not stupid. No one would ever feed a quote to Rosenthal or Buster Olney solely out of hopes that the Yankees would do something stupid.
The Orioles are also not stupid, even if they frustrate us a lot sometimes. If Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette can shake a tree and have a starter fall out, one can imagine he might wave a fringe minor leaguer at it and see if it bites. He like every other GM, can only cross his fingers and hope that one of the arms he stockpiled in the offseason, when organizations were running around like squirrels packing away acorns for the winter, will be enough for what he needs - that someone will figure out how to pitch well enough to get by in MLB.
Or, failing that, they will hope that their offense can overcome deficiencies in the starting rotation. Say, do you think we can trade Nolan Reimold for a more established left fielder?