The Orioles have a starting pitcher problem. The good news is that the problem isn't that they don't know whether to make Garrett Olson or Radhames Liz their #4 starter. They aren't equipped with an Ace (that capital letter is on purpose; Chris Tillman meets the requirements of the lower-case ace), and between the combined steadiness of Bud Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez; the emergence of Kevin Gausman, and the complete ineptitude of Ubaldo Jimenez thus far, they find themselves with six pitchers for five spots and no clear way ahead.
On the flip side, the Orioles now find themselves a little short in the offense department, having presumably lost Nelson Cruz to free agency and with Nick Markakis, for now at least, no longer an Oriole. Should the Orioles use one of their surplus pitchers to trade for an outfielder or designated hitter? It's possibly one idea that Dan Duquette is exploring, and one that I support.
Having six pitchers for five spots isn't the worst problem to have, especially since one or more of them will likely spend time injured during the season. But if all six make it through spring training healthy and looking like they'll remain productive, suddenly there is an issue. There is also the hopeful possibility that Dylan Bundy will be knocking on the door sooner rather than later, but that's really too nebulous to consider at this point (although I kind of am. I can't help it!).
If the Orioles make it all the way through spring training without making any changes to their starting pitching, and all six pitchers are looking good and feeling good, the Orioles will have to decide what to do with Tillman, Gonzalez, Chen, Norris, Gausman, and Jimenez. They sent Jimenez to the bullpen at the end of last season, but would they be willing to do that again? And at the start of the season? Their $50 million man? It seems unlikely to me. So that means he is probably in the rotation. Tillman is of course in the rotation, as is the lone lefty, Chen. Gonzalez, Norris, and Gausman all have minor league options remaining, but all have proven themselves to be major-league talent. One of them will have to go to the bullpen, or the Orioles will have to go with a six-man rotation. Neither of those options are appealing to me at all.
The most appalling thing that could happen, in my opinion, is if Gausman is stuck in the bullpen because he's young/inexperienced/has done it before. Gausman is probably the best talent they have of the current starters, and he needs to be where he belongs, which is in the rotation. But if he is, that would mean sending someone else, probably Gonzalez or Norris, to the bullpen instead. And while it would be nice to have someone like them in the bullpen if needed, it would for the most part be a huge waste. In a world where all of the starting pitchers are healthy, trading one of them seems like the best option available.
If one of the starters gets hurt, then suddenly the Orioles don't have a surplus of pitching on their hands and everything falls into place. There's no way to know about that during the off season though, so the Orioles have to decide if they want to keep the extra starter on hand in case something like that happens. Or they could trade one of their qualified major leaguers and sign some triple-A depth for the situation. Depth is something that Dan Duquette has proven himself very good at.
Should the Orioles do try to trade a starting pitcher, it's clear to me that pitcher won't be Tillman, Gausman, or Jimenez. Tillman and Gausman are good and young and under team control for quite some time, and Jimenez seems untradeable at this point. The only way to get rid of him would be to eat most of his salary or trade him for another under performing player. Getting rid of him now would be selling low on a guy who most certainly is capable of pitching better than he did during the 2014 season. So that leaves Gonzalez, Norris, and Chen as possible trade chips.
When I try to look at this from an outsider's perspective, Gonzalez seems like he might be a guy to try and a good return on. He's coming off of three successful seasons and he's not a free agent until 2018, but he has a number of things that could conceivably count against him. If you're a big believer in FIP, you might not be a big believer in Gonzalez. He has consistently outpitched his FIP since the Orioles picked him up. He doesn't strike out a lot of batters, he doesn't have overpowering velocity, he doesn't even get a ton of ground balls. He was *this* close to being out of professional baseball altogether before the Orioles Magic got to him, and he didn't make his major league debut until he was 28 years old. If you look at it a certain way, you can see why he might be a good sell-high candidate.
I don't see it that way, though. I love Miguel Gonzalez and I'd be legitimately sad if he were traded away from the Orioles. If some team's GM wanted to trade for him and offered a great deal, then of course the Orioles should move him. But when I look at Gonzalez I don't see a guy who might lose his mojo at any moment, I see a guy with a situation a lot like that of Tillman. MiGo is also in his first year of arbitration has three more seasons until free agency. He's four years older than Tillman, of course, but he'll turn just 31 during the 2015 season.
Also, from a sentimental standpoint, I would be really sad if he were traded away. I love the Miguel Gonzalez story. I love that he was almost out of baseball and the Orioles found him. I love that he wore Nick Adenhart's glove when he made his first major league start. I love that he's underrated by everyone, and I love remembering that start me made against the Yankees in the 2012 ALDS (I know, the Orioles lost that game, but remember MiGo?). I'm less sentimental about individual players than I was back when the Orioles were losers, but some players still get to me. Gonzalez is one of them.
So that just leaves...
Bud Norris & Wei-Yin Chen
I like both of these players as well, but both are free agents after the 2015 season. Trading either of them won't have any affect on the Orioles long term, but that of course limits their potential return as well. All things being equal, I think that many of us would prefer, of the two, that Norris be the one traded. Chen has been better than Norris over the past three seasons, he's currently the only lefty in the O's rotation, and he's slated to make much less than Norris in the coming season (Chen is signed for $4.75M; Norris is projected to make $8.7M in arbitration). But all of those reasons could be reasons that other teams would rather have Chen over Norris, or why the Orioles could get more for Chen than they could for Norris.
The smart move could be to try and get a good return on Chen. While I'd rather see Chen in the rotation than Norris, the dropoff isn't that huge, and Chen is such a good bargain that a team out there might be more willing to part with something of value to get him. I'd dislike seeing Chen on another team, but he'll probably be on another team after 2015 anyway.
Of course, the Orioles should only trade Norris or Chen (or anyone, at this point) if they can get major league quality in return. Who would that be? I'll leave that up to the rosterbators. But the Orioles are going to be going for it all again in 2015. Trading either of them for a player that cannot help them contend next summer isn't something I'm interested in seeing. A rotation of Tillman, Gausman, Gonzalez, Jimenez, and Norris or Chen, backed by a good defense and offense, is going to keep the Orioles in contention next year. But they should only part with one of their starting pitchers if they can make the 2015 even stronger.