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Orioles return all starting pitchers, but some division rivals may have more upside

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How do the Orioles stack up against their division competitors with their starting rotation? Some of the others may have more upside, but the Orioles are the ones bringing a track record of recent success as a group to the table.

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Orioles starting pitchers had the fourth-best ERA in the American League last year. I know, it still surprises me every time I see it. They needed only seven pitchers to start 162 games, and one of these pitchers, T.J. McFarland, started only a single game. So really, the Orioles needed to use only six pitchers to cover 161 starts. That kind of continuity even within a single season is not common in baseball these days.

Over the course of a season, teams must battle injuries and ineffectiveness. Things went about as well as they could for the Orioles last year. For most their division rivals, this was not the case. The Yankees had 13 different starting pitchers, with nine different pitchers starting at least 12 games each. The Red Sox used 11 starters, with nine of them starting at least 10 games. The Rays also needed 11 pitchers, though six of them started a combined 141 games.

The O's most fortunate division rival was the Blue Jays, who needed to use nine different starters, with five of these starting a combined 144 games. If the Jays bullpen hadn't have been one of the worst in all of baseball, we might have been talking about that team more. One of their five frequent starters from last year, Marcus Stroman, is already out for the season due to a torn UCL he suffered doing a bunt drill in spring training.

It's all well and good to look at a team's Opening Day rotation to figure out how well they should do. The reality is that for most teams, by season's end, their 6th-9th starters are going to play a significant role in how their season turns out. You don't know what a team's going to get from those guys until they show up. They could end up being top prospects getting their chance, minor league filler desperately pressed into service, or midseason acquisitions plugged into a gap.

Baseball, much like life, is chaotic and unpredictable, but when it comes to trying to guess what's going to happen, predictions are all we've got to go on. Talking about nothing is boring. Here's how the AL East rotations look as the season is set to begin, with each pitcher's 2015 ZiPS projection from Fangraphs:

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Player GS IP ERA BB SO WHIP
Drew Hutchison 27 151.1 4.22 48 143 1.28
R.A. Dickey 30 194.0 4.04 59 152 1.26
Daniel Norris 28 132.1 4.35 60 143 1.37
Mark Buehrle 30 191.0 4.10 45 110 1.36
Aaron Sanchez 20 127.2 4.44 70 102 1.48

When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. Nietzsche knew his stuff. At least as far as the ZiPS projection is concerned, you can forget about the Jays as competitors for the division this year.

It's not that easy to dismiss them, of course. Norris is rated in the top 20 prospects in baseball by the likes of Baseball America and MLB.com. Sanchez is a top 25 prospect in the eyes of Baseball Prospectus, and in the top 50 of the others. If these prospects come out dealing, as well they could, the Jays will be in a lot better shape than these projections make them look. The same is true if Hutchison ever experiences MLB-level success against a team other than the Orioles.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

Player GS IP ERA BB SO WHIP
Chris Archer 30 170.0 3.49 65 150 1.29
Jake Odorizzi 27 147.1 4.22 59 130 1.35
Nate Karns 24 133.0 4.26 59 125 1.38
Erasmo Ramirez 24 140.1 4.55 44 99 1.36
Matt Andriese 24 138.1 4.36 44 93 1.34

For the Rays, the fact that their Opening Day rotation is not going to last throughout the whole season is a positive. The Rays are missing three names who they hope will be back in action soon. Matt Moore looks to return from April 2014 Tommy John surgery, though as Orioles fans know from watching Dylan Bundy, it's not so easy as counting on a pitcher being back at 100% when you hit the one year anniversary of the surgery.

Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly, both of whom figure into the Rays rotation picture in the long run, are each recovering from tendinitis. Cobb's is in his right forearm, while Smyly's is in his left shoulder. There's also Alex Colome, who has to recover from a bout of pneumonia. Hopefully they didn't first tell him he had a strained oblique from coughing too hard, like what happened with Kevin Gausman last year.

If three of those players return to health and set themselves up in the rotation alongside of Archer, the Rays will have a good rotation and that will make them a tough team to contend with. They'll have to get by at least most of April with this patchwork unit.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Player GS IP ERA BB SO WHIP
Masahiro Tanaka 25 167.0 3.50 33 158 1.12
Michael Pineda 15 80.2 3.68 20 65 1.21
CC Sabathia 18 118.0 4.35 30 106 1.27
Nathan Eovaldi 28 159.2 4.51 48 121 1.37
Adam Warren 0 75.1 3.47 25 72 1.22

At least as far as the ZiPS projections are concerned, the Yankees rotation is another example of why you need to think about who your 6th-8th best starter candidates are. Warren was only announced to make the rotation on Wednesday afternoon and as you can see, the projection didn't think he'd be doing any starting at all.

Tanaka had a brilliant rookie campaign in MLB that was cut short by a partially-torn elbow ligament that, for now at least, he has successfully rehabbed. Sabathia threw only 46 innings last year and will never have his knees at 100% for the rest of his career. His ERA ballooned from 3.38 in 2012 to 4.78 in 2013. He's lost something like 4mph off his fastball. Even if healthy, he's not the pitcher he was.

Two Yankees who figure to end up in their rotation are working back from injuries. Chris Capuano suffered a strained quad and could return in May, while Ivan Nova had Tommy John surgery last May and is on the mend.

BOSTON RED SOX

Player GS IP ERA BB SO WHIP
Clay Buchholz 25 153.1 4.17 50 118 1.32
Rick Porcello 29 183.2 3.72 42 131 1.24
Wade Miley 30 186.2 3.90 63 155 1.32
Justin Masterson 26 157.2 4.28 71 134 1.40
Steven Wright 19 113.2 5.15 57 72 1.58

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in an ESPN-organized conference call with Curt Schilling and John Kruk. A Boston writer asked whether the two felt like the Red Sox had an ace on their staff, prompting Schilling to offer that Buchholz was only going to start on Opening Day because he'd been there the longest, and that Buchholz is not an ace because he doesn't want to be an ace. I don't know if that is relevant to Buchholz as a pitcher or not, but it was funny for me to listen to.

The Red Sox are currently the favorites to win the AL East according to the Bovada sportsbook. They are 2/1 to win the division. That's a bold bet with this rotation outlook. Porcello will probably be good for them. Miley has started at least 29 games in each of the last three seasons. That was for Arizona. Welcome to the AL East, Wade.

Joe Kelly will be back soon and probably displace Wright, the knuckleballer, from the rotation. ZiPS projects a 4.21 ERA from Kelly.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Player GS IP ERA BB SO WHIP
Chris Tillman 31 184.1 4.00 62 145 1.28
Wei-Yin Chen 28 167.0 4.10 40 127 1.26
Bud Norris 27 160.1 4.21 56 130 1.35
Miguel Gonzalez 24 147.1 4.40 47 104 1.32
Ubaldo Jimenez 27 150.1 4.19 76 145 1.42

Kevin Gausman will force his way into this picture eventually, we can only hope, but for the beginning of the season, the best guess doesn't have him in the rotation picture. What we do have is a bunch of pessimistic projections for each of the pitchers. All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

Other than Ubaldo, there's a real chance that each of the other four guys pitched as well as they're capable of pitching last season. Maybe they'll take what they learned and do it again. If so, it'll be another fun summer in Baltimore. If more than one pitcher gets hurt or struggles and they're forced into the O's depth beyond Gausman, that will be akin to crossing our fingers and praying.

I asked the ESPN guys about the O's chances of repeating even though they didn't add anybody. Schilling called Gausman "a potential kind of Matt Harvey in the AL" and was positive about Tillman would be able to do with an extra year of experience.

**

Trying to view the landscape of these rotations objectively, it's clear there are groups with higher potential upside than the Orioles. Tanaka, Pineda, Eovaldi, and Nova could turn into a nice quartet for New York. On the other hand, Tanaka's elbow could be a time bomb. Pineda threw 84 total innings last year and only about 40 the year before that. Nova has to get back from Tommy John.

The Rays, too, could find themselves with their usual assortment of solid young guns within a month of the season getting underway. The Jays have young arms who are potential difference-makers. Young arms don't necessarily make that immediate impact, though, nor is their progression always a linear thing. The bottom line is that fans of every team in the division should be feeling a bit nervous about the starting rotation.

Perhaps you'll find it a bit of a copout for me to say that the team that ends up with the healthiest rotation will probably be the team with the best rotation. And in any case any one of these teams could win even if their starting pitchers aren't the best. It's a team game, after all.

If the Orioles are going to find a way to repeat as AL East champions, they're going to need their five (or six) best starters to get them a lot of the way there. It happened last year. It could happen again.