This is the first of three roster outlook pieces to be run during Orioles Spring Training. Next week, I'll cover the lineup, and lastly I'll cover the bullpen.
As we all know by now, the 2015 Orioles will not look massively different from the 2014 Orioles. Subtract Cruz and Markakis, tinker around the edges a bit and hope for healthy, productive seasons from key players who struggled or got hurt last year -- that's the plan. Nowhere is this more evident than the rotation, which returns to 2015 intact from the previous year. But "intact" still means that the team has six guys for five jobs. Let's take a look at the lay of the land.
Chris Tillman - 2014: 207.1 IP, 3.34 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 150 K/66 BB
As the team's #1 starter, Tillman will undoubtedly take the hill on Opening Day again. He may not be a true "ace," and he may like to completely implode every month or so just to keep everyone guessing, but after two consecutive 200-inning, 110 ERA+ seasons, he's the Orioles' top-of-the-rotation guy. He's in spring training to tune up, not to earn a job or even the Opening Day nod.
Wei-Yin Chen - 2014: 185.2 IP, 3.54 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 136 K/35 BB
Chen isn't the perfect starter -- he has some trouble getting deep into ballgames and has some injury history -- but he's been massively valuable for the Orioles on his team-friendly contract, and his flyball tendencies have managed not to betray him even in the powerful AL East. Like Tillman, he's not involved in a roster battle -- as long as he's healthy, he's in the rotation.
Bud Norris - 2014: 165.1 IP, 3.65 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 139 K/52 BB
Norris, a late and somewhat pricey 2013 trade acquisition, was a pleasant surprise in 2014. He really turned a corner in his ability to get out left-handed batters with improved secondary pitches. And while his numbers are what they are and it's not fair to cherry-pick, a poor July/August showing overshadows just how good Norris was at the season's outset and conclusion. Norris will kick off 2015 in a mid-rotation slot for the Orioles.
The roster battle
It's accurate but somewhat misleading to say that the Orioles have "six guys for five slots." What they really have are three guys for their last two slots. How the team decides which two win, and what it does with the third guy, is a multifaceted issue, and the criteria for deciding will not be solely performance-based, for better or worse.
Ubaldo Jimenez - 2014: 125.1 IP, 4.81 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 116 K/77 BB
What can be said about Jimenez's 2014 that hasn't been said already? It was not good. The Orioles dipped their toes into the premier free-agent pool, and were promptly reminded why they don't usually do that (but at least signing Jimenez enabled the Cruz signing). Jimenez struggled with walks, he struggled with men on base, and then he struggled with walks some more. It got to the point where the Orioles slow-rolled his return from a minor injury at mid-season. Jimenez never squawked about the process, and always seemed to genuinely want to get back to form and help the club.
Early reviews on his spring training work have been positive, but he's there fighting for a spot, in spite of his massive contract -- he could be put back into long-man bullpen duty, or a mysterious injury could befall him right before the season's start (wink, wink), requiring some minor-league rehab work.
Miguel Gonzalez - 2014: 159 IP, 3.23 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 111 K/51 BB
It's not entirely fair for Miguel Gonzalez to be included in this conversation, but life is unfair, and here we are. Miguel Gonzalez is almost certainly one of the Orioles' five best starting pitching options. Miguel Gonzalez also has minor-league options. While he's never been a "sexy" pitcher, and he's never gotten things done in a way that pleases advanced pitching stats, for three years now he has given the Orioles an above-average ERA against tough lineups.
There's nothing for Gonzalez to actually show the team in spring training that they don't already know; if he's the odd man out, it's essentially a business decision, putting him first on deck when someone else struggles or gets injured.
Kevin Gausman - 2014: 113.1 IP, 3.57 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 88 K/38 BB
Take another guy with minor league options, and reverse the logic you'd apply to Gonzalez. Gausman has the electric stuff (the most raw talent on the Orioles, for sure), the sexy K numbers, but hasn't yet gotten the consistent major league results out of them (arguably due to a lack of consistent opportunity, or possibly due to some struggles with his secondary pitches).
If the Orioles make Gausman the odd man out of the rotation, they face a pair of undesirable choices in stashing him in the big-league bullpen (which disrupts his routine) or sending him to AAA Norfolk (where he has little left to prove or learn).
What does it all mean?
I won't even hazard a guess as to what the Orioles will do, and I'm not on hand in Sarasota to see the spring performances and inform an opinion of what they should do. On the numbers alone, Jimenez probably ought to be the guy to start the year in the pen or on the DL, but mid-market teams typically don't pay someone $12.2M to do those things. Gonzalez and Gausman, though, have done little to deserve the boot from the rotation. The Orioles don't have an easy out here unless someone actually gets hurt, which is never how you want these things to resolve themselves.
If fans can take solace in one thing when an inevitably frustrating decision is made, it's that the situation likely won't be permanent. Look at the 2014 IP numbers above -- few teams lack the innings to go around for six qualified starters. So even a bad decision in April won't have to haunt the team all year long. Still, seeing how the rotation gets set to kick off 2015 will be quite interesting.