When Miguel Gonzalez comes back from the disabled list, the Orioles are going to have a problem. They will have six starters for five slots in the rotation. Since Miguel Gonzalez is due to come off of the DL and start Tuesday against Tampa Bay, that problem is going to come to the forefront quickly. Let's take a look at a few different solutions to the Orioles problem.
1.) Demote Kevin Gausman to AAA
When Miguel Gonzalez went on the DL, Kevin Gausman was called on to replace him. After biding his time in AAA Norfolk to begin the season and being limited in both innings and pitch counts, Gausman was turned loose on the American League. In his first start after he was called up, he went seven innings while only allowing four hits and one run against the Athletics. He also struck out six and walked one, which lends even more credibility to the outing. In his second start, he held the Blue Jays to one run and five hits over six innings while walking and striking out three batters.
The two offenses Gausman was tasked with shutting down were no patsies. They rank fourth and second in team wOBA respectively making the two outings even more impressive than they appear at first glance. His first strike percentage is up to 66% from 61% last season. The whiff rate on his splitter is up to an elite 24%. Maybe even more impressive than that is this: when he got in trouble against the A's in the sixth inning when the first two batters reached base in the sixth inning, he reached back and hit 100 mph three times to get out of trouble unscathed. The last two batters of the inning were Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss, and they both struck out swinging.
Needless to say, I don't think the Orioles should demote Gausman. I think he's ready to succeed in the major leagues and has the most upside of anyone on the Orioles staff.
2.) Go with a six man rotation
For at least one turn through the rotation, the Orioles will go with a six man rotation. However, Buck has said that he doesn't want to do this for the long term. The downside to going with a six man rotation is that it most likely takes a pitcher out of the bullpen to accomplish. The arm that would most likely get sent down would be Josh Stinson but he doesn't have any options left so he would have to clear waivers before he could be sent down to AAA. It's tough to get through this part of the season with only six pitchers in the bullpen so this isn't a great option for any length of time.
The only way going with a six man rotation works is if the player removed from the roster is Delmon Young. Steve Pearce can handle all of the playing time that Young was getting, and probably deserves it anyway. Young doesn't help much as a bench player anyway because he's not fast enough to be a pinch runner or good enough on defense to be a defensive replacement. While this would be unlikely, I believe it's the only way to make a six man rotation work. A three man bench would be difficult but workable in this case.
3.) Move Miguel Gonzalez to the bullpen
Miguel Gonzalez has actually pitched pretty well in 2014. He has a 4.17 ERA but has increased his strikeout rate to almost 20% this season. However, if you remove his first two starts of the season, his ERA drops to 3.12 with a 22% strikeout rate. That rate would be 25th in the league for starting pitchers, tied with pitchers like Michael Wacha and Jeff Samardzija. It seems like Gonzalez gets demoted to the bullpen for a period of time each season and this year is no exception. He's already pitched out of the bullpen once on May 14.
I think Gonzalez has earned his spot in the rotation. Shifting him to the bullpen doesn't make the team better.
4.) Move Ubaldo Jimenez to the bullpen
Ubaldo has struggled mightily in his first year in the Orioles rotation. So far, he's compiled a 4.86 ERA with a 1.51 WHIP. His fielding independent numbers support his high ERA so it's definitely not bad luck holding him back. Perhaps the biggest culprit behind the high ERA is his lack of ability to avoid walks. This season, his walk rate is all the way up to 13.5% which would be a career high. Furthermore, the velocity on his fastball continues to slip which leads to him using more and more sinkers which are harder to control, which then leads to more walks. It's a vicious cycle.
The whiff rate on his four-seam fastball is all the way down to 4.5% from 8.8% last season. His strikeout rate is down almost five percentage points from last season as well. This is not what the Orioles were hoping to get when they signed him to a four year, $50 million contract this offseason. It's a good thing he has that contract. If there's anything that saves him from being sent to the bullpen, it's his contract. It would be an absolute failure for the club to have a reliever signed to such a large money long term deal. For that reason, I doubt it happens.
5. Move Chris Tillman to the bullpen
Tillman's numbers are just as bad as Ubaldo's when you really look at them. There are less strikeouts but also less walks than Ubaldo, which means a lot more contact. Unfortunately, he's not getting weak contact. He's put up a 4.91 ERA on the season but since April 23 his ERA is an absurd 6.57. As most starting pitchers are wont to do, he has lost some velocity this season. The velocity on his fastball is down a full mile an hour from last year, down to 91.8. Another mark in the negative column is that he's sporting the worst walk rate of his career at 10.1%.
The last two seasons, Tillman has probably been the best starting pitcher on the Orioles staff which buys him some leeway. It may ultimately buy him a reprieve from being sent to the bullpen now. He opened the season with three excellent starts but hasn't been able to find his groove since.
If this decision were based solely on performance, either Jimenez or Tillman would be shifted to the bullpen. Unfortunately, it's more complicated than that. There are contract implications to consider as well as fragile psyches. Buck also has to make sure to keep enough fresh arms in the pen to cover for a rotation that doesn't go deep into games. It's a difficult decision but that's why Buck makes the big bucks. I'm sure he's hoping that someone develops a blister or some other minor injury the next time through the rotation and the decision is made for him.
Short of that, I think we're going to see option six. If I chose to make another option, it would have been to make up an injury to either Ubaldo Jimenez or Chris Tillman. Both of them are pitching poorly this season. Neither one of them really deserve to stay in the rotation, but there are other factors to consider before giving them the boot. It would look bad for the club to have either it's opening day starter or it's prized free agent acquisition demoted to the bullpen in June. A convenient minor injury resulting in a short disabled list stint including a minor league rehab assignment could be the perfect alternative. To MLB's dismay, not all DL stints are real injuries. Sometimes a team needs a guy to go on the DL to alleviate difficult roster decisions just like this one.
I think that's the easiest way out of this problem for the Orioles. I'd hate to see Gausman demoted back to the minors considering the state of the rotation as a whole.
What do you think the Orioles will do? What do you think they should do?