With the news that Johan Santana is pushing his way back to the majors comes a strange revelation: A healthy Johan Santana might not be among the five best healthy starting pitchers in the Orioles organization. The Orioles rotation, per usual, is not setting the world ablaze -- but what's shocking is that not a single member of the rotation is hurt, or bad enough to leave fans begging for a replacement.
First, a bit of context: The magical 2012 Orioles used 12 starters en route to 93 wins. The 2013 squad used 14 starters during their less impressive run. The recent-vintage Orioles are known for starters who struggle to stay healthy and effective. The 2014 club wasn't really expected to be all that different -- but somehow, they are. Through 55 games, the club has used six starters -- its intended starting five, and a single ill-advised spot start by Kevin Gausman (recently ill and on short rest at the time).
There's no real stud performer here. After a hot start, Chris Tillman has gone through a rough patch and looks quite mortal at times recently. Ubaldo Jimenez had his usual rotten April and is still struggling to get a consistent run together. Wei-Yin Chen has kept himself from imploding, but has allowed an alarming number of baserunners (10.8 H/9 and a 1.374 WHIP). Miguel Gonzalez still ends up right around average while turning in less than six innings per start. The only pitcher above league average, as measured by ERA+, is Bud Norris, the guy widely expected to be a fringey #5 starter but who has suddenly, maybe, developed an ability to get lefties out. So this is a flawed group of guys -- that much was known going into the season. And yet, it's a group of guys who are all still standing. None has gotten hurt, and none has pitched himself out of a job.
The Orioles have a long way to go before this is relevant, but getting through a season with six starters is pretty rare, and is usually a good sign. Since the Orioles moved to Baltimore in 1954, only two teams have made it through a season with just five starters -- the 1966 Dodgers and 2003 Mariners. 31 teams have made it through the season with just six starters (four of them were Orioles teams, but the last was in 1982). Six of the 33 teams in questions played in strike-shortened seasons, but the 27 that happened in full seasons averaged 94.3 wins. Of course, using fewer pitchers is correlated to success because it's also correlated to having great pitchers, a rule to which the Orioles could easily be one of the occasional exceptions to that rule. Also, it's early enough that seven teams have still only used six starters, whereas in a normal season only one or two teams (if any) finish that way.
And, let's be real, that team probably won't be the Orioles. Wei-Yin Chen could make his annual DL visit, or Miguel Gonzalez could turn into a pumpkin, and when they do, Dylan Bundy or Johan Santana might be on deck rather than Gausman. Or Santana could make some starts during a run of 18 games the team has in 17 days. But regardless of all that, it's great to see the Orioles rotation going through far less churn to start 2014 than it has in the recent past. It hasn't translated to results just yet, but for all that Orioles fans have said "Where would this team be without Nelson Cruz," imagine where it might be if it was handing more starts out to Josh Stinson or T.J. McFarland. This rotation isn't beautiful, but it's a lot more stable than that.