With the signing of Bronson Arroyo last week by the Diamondbacks, the Orioles' options for a starter on the free agent market dwindled that much further. There are still some free-agent options on the board -- some solid options who would cost the Orioles a first-round draft pick, and some interesting lottery tickets who would not. If the Orioles don't sign one of them in the next few days, I'll examine the remaining options in a separate post. For now, I want to look at a separate question: What will the Orioles rotation look like in 2014 if they don't sign a free agent starter, and just how bad will it be?
It's not entirely fair to list these guys in the same tier, but let's start with the team's top three starters, who will probably anchor the rotation most of the year. Chris Tillman is the team's de facto ace, and unless something goes horribly wrong, the team can put him down for 30+ starts of semi-reliable quality. Wei-Yin Chen has become the team's #2, and has shown no signs that he has trouble hanging in the rotation, though injuries and effectiveness beyond the sixth inning remain a concern. And Miguel Gonzalez seems to be determined to continue defying the odds and the advanced statistics alike, and even if he walks a tightrope at times, the team clearly expects him to hold down the third spot in the rotation.
These "big three" are pretty well penned in to the rotation to start the season. Again, Chen might get hurt and Gonzalez sometimes feels like he's a hair's breadth from being banished back to the independent leagues from whence he came, but they've both made quality contributions to the major league rotation for two years running now.
The Wild Cards
Kevin Gausman is the #1 intriguing starting pitching story for the Orioles in 2014. And in fact, the success of the team may well hinge on his ability to contribute to the major league rotation (no pressure, kid). On the surface, Gausman struggled in the majors in 2013, pitching to a 5.66 ERA in 47 innings. The counterpoint, based on a small sample size of course, is that the advanced stats say he was unlucky, and the club did bounce him between the rotation and the bullpen quite a bit. In my perfect world, the Orioles make an inviolable commitment to Gausman as a starter, kick off his season at AAA Norfolk, and pencil him in to join the rotation whenever the first person struggles or gets hurt.
Zach Britton could easily fit into this category or the one below, but I'm putting him here because the team will probably be forced to fish or cut bait with Britton, who's out of options and can't be sent to the minors without clearing waivers this season. With the limited options the Orioles would face without a free agent signing, Britton could easily open the season as the team's #5 starter, and pretty much get one last chance to show that his stuff can play in the majors. To date, Britton has a 4.77 ERA in 254 major league innings and 48 appearances (all but two of them starts). Unless the Orioles hide him as a longman in the bullpen, this may be the year that Britton either turns a corner or ends his Orioles tenure.
The Known (But Mediocre) Quantity
Bud Norris, the only meaningful guy the Orioles added by trade in 2013 who's still on the roster, is still here. Norris is the prototypical #5 starter, a guy who doesn't implode too terribly often, but allows way too many baserunners (1.678 WHIP after last year's trade) and has a glaring, obvious weakness (left-handed hitters OPSed .889 against him last year). Norris can hold down a spot in the rotation -- the questions are how well, for how long, and does anyone really want him to do so?
The Fringe Candidates
In terms of rotation potential, T.J. McFarland, Josh Stinson and Steve Johnson are basically the same guy, with Johnson having maybe a bit more potential. On a normally stocked major league club, one of these guys breaks camp as the longman in the bullpen, with a chance for a few spot starts. On the 2014 Orioles, sans a free agent starter, there's a non-trivial chance that each of these guys has a stint on the club and more than one of them makes some starts. Remember, the 2013 Orioles went through 14 starting pitchers, which is not an atypical number when a team doesn't have a lot of proven guys to start the year.
Also kicking around will be Mike Wright, a developing prospect who had a successful AA campaign last year and could conceivably help the big club this year. Dylan Bundy is still out there, too, after having Tommy John surgery early last year, but seeing him in Baltimore before August would be a surprise at this point, despite all his potential. The last prospect worth mentioning is Eduardo Rodriguez, but again he's a bit further away, having just been promoted from high-A to AA in 2013, and not quite dominating AA once that occurred.
There are also Dan Duquette's signature dumpster dives floating around, namely Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Laffey and Liam Hendriks, snagged off waivers and signed to minor league deals from around the league. It's not inconceivable for one of these guys to do something for the team in 2014, but it's not a bet I'd make in any of their favor, either.
The team has talked about stretching out Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz as starters in spring training, but fans should temper their expectations. Neither of those two has shown the ability to get through a starting lineup multiple times, nor to consistently get opposite-handed batters out. It's just not meant to be, especially with Hunter now left as one of the leading candidates for closer after the team traded Jim Johnson and failed to sign Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney.
I came into this article with a preconceived notion, I'll admit it. But I'll reiterate: The 2013 Orioles used 14 starting pitchers. In this post, I mentioned exactly 17 candidates to start inside the organization, and I reached deep. If 14 of these 17 make starts for the 2014 Orioles, then the 2014 Orioles are in trouble. If the Orioles really pass on every free agent because prices are rising, and really believe that they have a season's worth of major league starts inside the organization right now, they are wrong. I'll talk about who they might sign later this week (again, if the team doesn't pre-empt me with a signing before then), but they need to sign someone. Normally, "Don't just stand there, spend something" is a terrible philosophy, but the Orioles are currently built like an 82-86 win team, and any starter who they sign is taking away innings from the likes of Norris and Britton. So you can say that Scott Feldman and Bronson Arroyo aren't that great and got too much money, but the reality is that the money they got is what the market will bear, and they probably would have improved the Orioles relative to the option of signing nobody at all. Let's hope Dan Duquette is still planning to recitfy this situation.