The gap between the Orioles and the most successful teams in baseball was exposed during the playoffs. Every team that made it to the League Championship Series round had a rotation stacked with quality pitchers.
All five American League playoff teams were in the top six in starter ERA for the league. The Orioles were in 12th with a 4.57 ERA, over a full run worse than AL-leading Detroit. They threw the fifth-fewest innings, had the fourth-worst strikeout rate, fourth-worst walk rate, and the worst home run rate out of all AL starters. Consistent performances were hard to find, especially at the back of the rotation.
With Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez all seeming to have spots locked up for next season, the Orioles need to fill two more places in the rotation. Who can they look to for improvement? Over the next few days, Camden Chat will be looking at internal options, possible trade targets, and possible free agent targets to upgrade the starting rotation.
Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette likes to talk about building from within. There were hopes before 2013 that internal candidates like Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz might distinguish themselves and hold down rotation spots. Instead, they covered themselves in failure. Will the internal options for 2014 do any better?
2013 (HOU and BAL): 30 GS, 176.2 IP, 4.18 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 1.49 WHIP, 147 K, 67 BB, 17 HR
The internal option with the greatest likelihood of opening in the rotation is the Orioles' big mid-season trade acquisition, Bud Norris. In reality, Norris is probably set in stone for the rotation coming out of spring training. While his ERA looks respectable enough for a back end rotation option, in his 50.2 innings pitching for the O's, he had a 4.80 ERA and a significantly worse home run rate.
Some of Norris' worse results with Baltimore may be due to bad luck, as hitters had a .380 average on balls in play when he was with the O's, while they had a .316 in his Astros starts. He has always been a pitcher with a BABIP on the high side, with a .311 mark in his career. A 1.49 WHIP does not happen due to accident or bad luck. His biggest problem as a pitcher is that he struggles mightily against lefties. They batted .309/.381/.509 against him this season.
Norris will be 29 by Opening Day and has 740.1 innings under his belt. He is who he is as a pitcher, and that is a pitcher who should be in the bullpen on a team that wants to go into September in contention for a playoff spot. Norris is likely to be in the rotation for lack of better options. Please make sure you are not near a ledge. Look at the pitchers who started World Series or LCS games and then ponder Norris. This is the biggest, and least likely to be solved, problem facing the O's next season.
2013: 20 G, 47.2 IP, 5.66 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 1.34 WHIP, 49 K, 13 BB, 8 HR
It doesn't take much to be tantalized by the future that Gausman could have. One fastball that clocks 99 on the gun, one look at a devastating change-up, and it's clear that Gausman could be the kind of pitcher the O's are missing - and the kind that championship contenders seem to have in abundance.
The O's don't have the developmental ability or fortune to plug in a player like that as a rookie and have him be great. There's still plenty of reason to hope Gausman could be good or great. However, he needs some work first.
Over his time in the big leagues, he did not do well with men on base, stranding only 64.4% of runners who reached. The league average was 73.5%. Also, the home runs. So many home runs. He has had his first lesson in what MLB-caliber hitters can hit. He needs to work on his off-speed offerings. If spring training isn't sufficient for this, it may be best if he spends a month in the minor leagues.
The Orioles gave Arrieta a last chance to fail in 2013 before giving up on him. The same story could play out with Britton in 2014. If they add no one, he could be the pitcher to keep a spot room temperature while Gausman tools up his off-speed in Triple-A. Britton is a pitcher who has had many chances to succeed and has done nothing with any of them.
Not only has he not succeeded, but Britton has never even shown flashes of why he was once labeled part of the cavalry. He'll be 26 by Opening Day and has been in the organization since 2006. He is no spring chicken of a prospect any longer. If he is the answer, Orioles fans don't want to know the question.
Britton started seven games for the 2013 O's, an almost inconceivable notion. If they need him to start any games in 2014, things are starting off in a bad place.
The same can be said of T.J. McFarland, the Rule 5 draft pick. He is a guy who throws with his left hand who has started games in his professional life. That doesn't mean he should be a starter at the MLB level for anything more than a spot start.
There are players worth varying levels of excitement who are going to open the season in the minor leagues. There is also Dylan Bundy, working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Bundy was the #2-ranked prospect by Baseball America prior to 2013, but he didn't have his surgery until the end of June and probably won't be jumping to the big leagues right when he is back.
A couple of pitchers who appeared for Double-A Bowie in 2013 are among those that the organization is high on. Duquette singled out both Mike Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez for praise on a recent conference call with Orioles reporters. Wright, a third-round pick out of East Carolina in the 2011 draft, made 26 starts for the Baysox.
The 6'6" right-hander had a 3.26 ERA in those games, with his most impressive trait being that he gets nearly as many ground-ball outs as air outs. While you can only tell so much from minor league stats, Wright had an impressive number of strikeouts, recording 136 in 143.2 innings pitched. He also got nearly as many groundouts as flyouts, which helped him limit the number of home runs he surrendered. Wright only allowed nine on the season.
Rodriguez, the Venezuelan lefty, will only turn 21 in April and was already well-regarded going into the season, ranking in the top 100 prospects for ESPN's Keith Law. He showed enough potential in 2013 that he will probably move up that ranking. He dominated the Carolina League to the tune of a 2.85 ERA in 85.1 innings before being promoted to Bowie.
Bernie Pleskoff, a former MLB scout who writes for MLB.com, saw Rodriguez pitch in the Arizona Fall League in late October. Pleskoff noted that Rodriguez needed to work on his change-up and still needs to find the inside of the plate, particularly against left-handed batters. Overall, he liked what he saw, projecting Rodriguez as an eventual No. 3 starter for Baltimore. Given their track record with pitching prospects in recent years, that would be a great outcome for the O's.
Still, even if their development goes well, the Orioles would be better off not needing to rely on either Wright or Rodriguez, especially not before the second half of the season. If the Orioles hope to get a better rotation from within in the short-term, their only hope is for Gausman to improve significantly. Failing that, they will have to rely on free agency or a trade to get what they need to succeed.