In 2014, Bud Norris had the best season of his career. Coming into the season as an iffy #5 starter who wasn't a lock to make the Baltimore rotation, he pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 28 starts and became reliable enough to start two playoff games. Unfortunately for the O's, 2015 has been another story. From his 3-inning, 8-run outing in the home opener to his 6-inning, 5-run appearance against the Rangers on Tuesday, he has struggled nearly every start and looked like a completely different pitcher from a year ago. In eleven starts, his best game score is a 60 (decent, but not great), and his average is a 40 (bad). I'm no fan of win/loss record, but when you're 2-7 while getting 5.5 runs of support per 9 innings, that's a problem.
It's clear that if Norris continues to pitch this way, the first-place Orioles can't afford to keep sending him to the mound every fifth day. The O's were willing to remove Ubaldo Jimenez from the rotation last season when his ERA was around five, even with the ink still wet on his four-year deal. Norris' ERA is 6.79, and although there's probably some luck in there, his FIP is still 5.44. In short, he's been unlucky AND terrible. So what's the next move? Bud can't be send down, so the Orioles really only have two options: DFA him and try to find a trade, or put him in the bullpen.
The first option is going to be difficult. There isn't much of a market for starting pitchers making $9 million with an ERA approaching seven. Even any hope that he may bounce back to his pre-2015 form is mostly negated by the fact that he's a free agent after this year anyway. Any trade would most likely be a salary dump, something along the lines of when the Dodgers essentially bought a draft pick from the Orioles by taking on Ryan Webb.
How about the bullpen? It's easy to dismiss that option considering Norris's performance, but pitching out of the bullpen is simply not the same as pitching as a starter. We don't have to look very far to see a prime example of this: Tommy Hunter.
Through the first 4 months of 2012, Tommy "5 Runs All Earned" Hunter was a not-very-good starter, a homer-prone pitcher with average velocity and 5ish ERA. After moving to the bullpen late in the year, he starting throwing flames. Here were his average fastball velocities by month that season:
Any guesses as to which month he moved to the bullpen? Obviously, that huge spike in velocity came from beginning to make short relief appearances in September. He's averaged at least 97.5 MPH nearly every month ever since. Hunter is clearly an extreme example, but gaining velocity as a reliever is a common phenomenon. Norris usually sits around 94, so who's to say that couldn't turn into 98+ if he's only pitching an inning or two? There's no way of knowing until he goes out and does it.
An increase in velocity could be huge for Norris, especially considering his pitch repoirtoire. He throws mostly hard stuff: fastballs and sinkers with some sliders mixed in, and he rarely uses his changeup. Norris' BB/9 is a reasonable 3.1, so his struggles aren't coming from a major bump in walks like Ubaldo last season. Instead, he's simply not missing bats and getting the crap hit out of him. An increase in velocity out of the 'pen could change that.
This is not to say that Bud Norris will turn into the flamethrowing, effective version of Tommy Hunter we saw down the stretch in 2012 and for the majority of 2013/2014. He may not have a significant velocity increase at all, or the extra velocity may not even help. If batters continue to be able to square him up, throwing harder just means they'd hit the ball harder. But it's worth a shot.
If Norris struggles out of the bullpen, the Orioles can always pursue the salary dump option at that time. They can also DL him with a Duquette "injury", eat the money, and never look back. But the O's might as well exhaust all of their ways to try and get some value out of Norris first. It worked before, and it just might work again.