Comparing the A.L. East starting rotations - part 1

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles rotation has been bolstered by addition of Ubaldo Jimenez. How does the rotation stack up against the rest of A.L. East?

In spring training, a lot of attention is paid to the starting pitchers’ pitching counts and how they are getting ready to embrace a full-season workload. In order to survive this offense-heavy division, having a strong pitching staff is a must.

Fortunately for the Orioles, the team isn’t so much of a bottom-tier pitching power of the MLB anymore as they were as recently as 2011 (7.2 team pitching fWAR, 27th in MLB) or, going a bit back, in 2008 (5.1 team pitching fWAR, 29th in the MLB. Anyone remember this beautiful rotation? ), but it was not quite top-tier of the league last year either, placing 20th in the league with 11.6 fWAR. If you talk about position players, Fangraphs valued the ‘13 Orioles pretty highly - they were 5th in the ML with the highest team Isolated Power (.171, which means that the entire team had the power of Kendrys Morales) and boasted league above-average baserunning and fielding stats (12.7 BsR is the 4th in ML and 29.6 Def is 11th). Needless to say, good offense and defense were part of the 85-77 record last year - solid, but obviously not enough to make the cut in AL East. How good would the team have been if the Orioles had not even a top 10, but a league above-average pitching staff?

Earlier this year, the Orioles made a major move to bolster the pitching rotation by signing Ubaldo Jimenez to a 4-year, $50 million deal. After letting Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel go, the front office decided that Jimenez would be a worthy investment to fill their shoes. Assuming the pitchers perform as expected without being plagued by the injury bug, how will Orioles SPs fare against the rest of AL East?

This is part one of a two-part post that counts down the A.L. East starting rotations. Part two will be published a bit later today, so stay tuned.

5. Toronto Blue Jays:

The Blue Jays’ big dream of 2013 faded away thanks to an unusual amount of injuries that the team endured (link NSFW). If you are a baseball fan, you know who R.A. Dickey is. In 2013, Dickey did not live up to the lofty expectations, but from July 31st to end of the season, he looked much more like his Mets self by going 6-2, 3.11ERA in 84.0 innings pitched. Hitters were not hitting him as hard during that span with a 1.17 HR/9 rate (before then, his HR/9 was 1.54, which is pretty high). It doesn’t necessarily mean that Dickey will rebound to his 2010-’12 self, but Blue Jays fans have a reason to be optimistic about their opening day starter. Also, even if he underperformed in ‘13, he still ate 224.2IP, which is the second-most in the AL after James Shields (228.2IP).

Mark Buehrle is probably the only name in their rotation that lived up to the billing. A veteran finesse lefty who mixes and matches and eats innings did just that - pitching 203.1 innings while earning a solid, but not spectacular 4.15ERA/4.10FIP line (and 2.5 fWAR). His strikeout/walk/HR rate (6.14/2.25/1.06) was not too far off from his career average (5.18/2.04/1.01). Both Steamer and ZiPS project him to take a step back (2.0 WAR and 1.7 WAR, respectively) but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has another >2.0 fWAR season in him. His value kind of leaves something to be desired as a #2 starter of a rotation, but that’s just me. You can count on him being serviceable but perhaps not carrying the staff ala his 2005 (6.0 fWAR. Nothing to scoff at).

Here’s where things get trickier for the Jays. As recently as 2012, Brandon Morrow had finished a solid season in which he had a 86 FIP- (his FIP was 14% better than the league average, for those unfamiliar with FIP-). In 2013, he underperformed and a forearm nerve injury forced him out for the season. Coming into 2014, Morrow only had one season as a reliable starter and he has to bounce back from a subpar 2013 - is it in him? Even though his fastball velocity didn’t decline last year, he got knocked around quite a bit - his strikeout rate declined (7.80 -> 6.96), he was giving up home runs in an alarming rate (15.6% HR/FB) and he was stranding many fewer baserunners (77.3 LOB% -> 66.0 LOB%). Because of his upside, when he’s healthy, he’ll get a chance to redeem himself.

J.A. Happ’s 2013 is marred by the Desmond Jennings line drive that caused him to miss 3 months' worth of action. Statistics-wise, Happ can give a team a serviceable back-end-of-rotation effort (projected 1.5 WAR from Steamer and 1.4 WAR from ZiPS, which I don’t disagree with) but the decline in K-rate (8.96 -> 7.48) and increase in walk rate (3.48 -> 4.37) isn’t all that encouraging. Even though Happ’s 4.79 ERA in 2012 isn’t all that pretty, Blue Jays fans should hope that the peripherals turn back the clock (4.01 FIP/3.92xFIP).

The 5th spot seems to be up for grabs at this moment but 23-year-old Drew Hutchison is one of the favorites. In 2012, Hutchison was having an okay first tour at ML and needed Tommy John surgery. He spent the entire 2013 rehabbing and is looking to earn a rotation spot for 2014. Hutchison has some upside - a fastball that goes up to 95 mph, decent command and many have suggested that he has "adequate #4 upside."

Verdict:

Dickey could be better this year and Buehrle will most likely be Buehrle, but if the rest of the rotation doesn’t step up, the team is in trouble again. The bright spot is that there are starters with good upsides that could break out (Morrow, Hutchison, Stroman) and give the fans something to feel optimistic about. But still, there are plenty of question marks that make it hard to envision that they would match to the Rays or Red Sox-level of rotation quality.


4. Baltimore Orioles:

Ubaldo Jimenez is definitely looking like the #1 guy in the rotation based on salary, 2013 performance, pedigree, etc., but he is not without question marks: was his resurgent 2nd half for real? From July 28th to the end of the regular season, Ubaldo went 8-4, 78.1IP, 23 BB and 94 K’s while earning a 1.72 ERA (that’s good). He allowed only 1 HR during that hot stretch and the walk rate was 2.64 - which is much lower than his career BB/9 of 4.04. Don’t expect him to repeat the same production (well, he could) but if he replicates the dominance of striking out hitters while maintaining the lower walk rate, you can expect a solid #1-#2 starter season from Jimenez. So far this spring, he had one good start (in which he was perfect for two innings versus the Phillies) and one awful one (in which he allowed 7 baserunners in 2 innings versus... the Phillies). The Orioles felt that he was worth the 4-year, $50-million investment, and they gotta hope that they are getting the good Ubaldo. It would be unreasonable to expect a first-half 2010 Ubaldo (15-1, 2.20 ERA while reaching triple digits with his fastball) but you could expect the first 3.0+fWAR Orioles starter since… 2007 Erik Bedard (5.1 fWAR with a ridiculous 10.93 K/9).

Behind Ubaldo are a series of solid but unspectacular arms. After solid showings in both 2012 and 2013, you can count on Chris Tillman to be a solid #2. Tillman, who is going to turn 26 in April, seems to be entering the prime of his career and I feel like he could either progress or regress. While he was luckier than league average with runners on base (80.5% left on base percentage - league average around 70~72%), he was not as lucky with flyballs with 14.2% HR/FB. His 38.5% groundball rate tells us that he’s more of a flyball pitcher so if he succeeds in keeping more flyballs in the ballpark, you can definitely expect a better season from him (as long as he doesn’t tank in other categories). Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez both fit the solid #3~#4 type starter profile as both projection systems expect 1.5~2.0 WAR-type years for them. Neither strike out nor walk an outrageous amount of batters and are both solid low-mid-4.00 FIP pitchers that have proven to be able to eat around 150 IP or more in a season.

There is a 5th spot competition for the O's this spring. Bud Norris, who didn’t have a strong showing after being traded to the Orioles (4.80 ERA in 50.2IP with 4.3 BB/9 but with 10.1 K/9) might be headed to bullpen and it wouldn’t be an unreasonable move. According to this Camden Depot article, he might be good as a situational guy because of poor splits against lefties and faring worse second and third time through the lineups. But because he has a starter pedigree throughout his pro career, the move to bullpen might not be imminent.

Besides Norris, there’s also Kevin Gausman, who, as you may know, had a bit of a tryout at ML in 2013. In 47.2IP, he posted 9.25 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 - a good combo - but he had a problem with gopher balls by allowing 18.6% flyballs as home runs and having a lowly low strand rate at 64.4%. It’s a small sample and while there are worries, the fact that he can strike out big leaguers while not walking the park is exciting. ZiPS love him for 2014, projecting him to have a 10-9 season with 4.28ERA/3.70FIP with 2.3 WAR (which is higher than what they give to Chen, Gonzalez, and even Tillman). If 2014 is the year that Gausman settles into the rotation, O’s fans have a lot to be excited about.

Then there's Suk-Min Yoon, who is an unknown value for now. He signed with the Orioles at his diminished value two years after winning the Korean league MVP. In KBO, he had most of his success as a starter and he can be a solid middle-back-end-of-rotation guy when healthy. But the problem is, will he stay off the disabled list? For now, Yoon has yet to make his ST debut and there are only two weeks left before the regular season starts - he doesn’t have that much time to impress.

Zach Britton is a dark horse - he is having a strong spring so far and many fans still believe that he could repeat the memorable start of the 2011 season in which he went 8-6 with 3.10 ERA in 87.0IP for the first 14 starts. He still can generate grounders (58.0% groundball percentage in 2013) and is only 26. I can see the Orioles giving him more shots to stick to the rotation - if not, he could be a bullpen arm or pitching for another team.

Verdict:

Pray that Ubaldo’s newfound command is not a fluke and Tillman gets luckier with flyballs. We know what we are getting with Chen and Gonzalez. Holes can be filled with young arms (and Johan Santana, possibly), which would lead to some good dilemmas. But as far as we know, none of the starters seem to be a pure ace-type that would match with the Lesters or the Prices. The rotation could get by in the AL East decently, but because of strong competition in the division, you can’t have a 2013 Jason Hammel-esque underperformer.

Check back at noon for part two in this series.

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