In a baseball utopia, every team would have an ace pitcher. He would dominate his opponents every five days, sprinkling in shutouts and the occasional no-hitter. Alas, the major leagues isn't a utopia, and there are a limited number of star pitchers to go around -- at least until they start cloning Justin Verlander (the results of World Series Game 1 notwithstanding). The Orioles lacked that ace in 2012. If they want to continue their surprising return to contention, they'll need to find one, because they can't count on the bullpen making another decisive contribution to the winning effort.
It's no revelation that any team looks better with a number-one starter in the rotation, but for the Orioles it's worth rehearing the obvious because they have to realize that the way they won last season isn't sustainable. No one expected the Orioles to finish with a 93-69 record this season, nor could they have anticipated their first trip to the postseason since Hanson's "MMMBop" was on the charts, but just because it was unexpected, nothing says the 2012 season has to have been a fluke. Sure, there were players who performed better than expected, and the club had its share of luck (I'm referring, of course, to their 29-9 record in one-run games and their odds-defying 16-2 record in extra-inning games) and they are unlikely to repeat themselves, but the biggest reason the comeback train might derail is the team's disproportionate reliance on the bullpen, a side effect of having such a weak rotation.
The Orioles are far removed from the days when they won with deep and durable starters like Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson, and Mike Cuellar; this year, their top starter, Wei-Yin Chen, pitched 192.2 innings. No other starter was over 118.0. This season, Orioles starters pitched 937.2 innings, while relievers pitched 545.1, 56th highest total in history, fourth in the majors this season, but the most among contenders. The emphasis on the ‘pen turned out to be a good decision; it was the third-most-effective relief staff in the American League as ranked by Fair Run Average (FRA). There is nothing inherently wrong with this; the reason that balancing innings pitched between the starting rotation and bullpen pitchers is so important is because the bullpen is more susceptible to varying performances from season to season, which makes it a bad idea for contenders to rely on the pen for such big chunks of the total innings pitched.
In Baseball Prospectus's latest book Extra Innings, Ben Lindbergh looked at the top 50 relievers, as measured by WARP, in each season from 1980 to 2010 and found that 60 percent of the top 50 turns over in a single season, and the pace of turnover is accelerating as teams use more roster spots for pitchers, which means more specialized roles and fewer innings pitched, which in turn means less of a sample by which to judge them.
The numbers show it's rare for relievers to repeat success in the bullpen. According to Lindbergh, just four pitchers ranked among the Top 50 relievers for four or more consecutive seasons from 1980-2010: Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, and Heath Bell. As Casey Stengel once told Sparky Anderson, "Young man, if you've got two relief pitchers, one of them will go bad next year. Get another one."
Ironically, Orioles relievers have been shockingly consistent until this year: the bullpen has been one of the team's biggest liabilities. From 2005 on, they spent every season in the majors' bottom ten in relievers' FRA, including 2011 when they pitched an organization record of 545.2 innings (23rd most in history), while finishing 27th in the majors in FRA. It's great that the Orioles finally had a breakout season this year, but now they have to adapt their strategy or die-they have to focus on building a starting rotation they can trust to consistently pitch longer outings, while getting results. This season, Orioles starters couldn't do either.
The easiest and fastest way to strengthen the rotation would be to find a free agent or make a trade this offseason, but general manager Dan Duquette has made it clear that he plans to continue to build the ball club through young talent, which makes it unlikely they'll be in the running for big-name free agents like Zack Greinke this offseason. There's obviously value in building talent from within, and the Orioles may have a future ace in Dylan Bundy or even 2012 fourth-overall draft pick Kevin Gausman. As such, it's legitimate to think that the Orioles don't need to spend on a starter. However, young pitchers are precarious propositions. Given recent experience, the Orioles are well-positioned to grasp the importance of having some insurance while transitioning prospects to the major leagues.
What Duquette doesn't seem to be considering is that often even the best pitching prospects don't take right away, and sometimes they don't take at all. In an article written by Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein earlier this year, a scout said of Bundy, "the hyperbole is justified...but it's a long journey from Delmarva to No.1." That's been the case for many pitchers. Even future 300-game winners like Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux struggled in their first seasons in the league, while Roy Halladay was sent back to minors to fix his mechanics during an abysmal sophomore season with the Toronto Blue Jays. But really, we don't even have to look beyond the Orioles' current roster when we talk about prospects not living up to the hype--Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton, all highly regarded organizational prospects at one time, have yet to fully establish themselves in the majors.
In one sense, Duquette is right.; the Orioles probably shouldn't get in bed with an ace on a long and expensive contract until they know how the team will fare in the long term, but sitting around waiting for prospects to mature is too passive a strategy. There's an immediate need for better starters, or even a co-called LAIM (League-Average Innings-Muncher) to take some of the burden off of the bullpen.
Earlier this week, Stacey took a look at possible acquisitions that the team could use to strengthen the rotation this offseason, and realistically any option on that list is better than doing nothing at all. The worst thing the Orioles could do is punt the next couple of seasons waiting for Dylan Bundy to swoop in and save them. The success of this season had much to do with luck and a perfect storm of events, but many of the building blocks of an extended run of success are already in Baltimore. Through a stronger rotation and less reliance on the bullpen, perhaps next season their success will be based on elements that are more likely to be repeatable.