There is no help on the horizon for the Orioles starting rotation. Not only must they stare right into the impending departure of Wei-Yin Chen, the lone good starting pitcher this season, into free agency, but if they survey their farm system for arms that might impact next year's rotation, they're probably not going to find a thing. Fangraphs analyzed the 30 teams systems this week and when it comes to pitching depth the Orioles rank dead last.
That would be a problem regardless of the circumstances at the big league level in 2015. You don't want to look down onto the farm and see nothing but tumbleweeds blowing around. That's pretty much where they're at. It's an even bigger problem considering that the 2015 starting rotation is probably the biggest reason the Orioles have slipped from where they were last year to this barely clinging to .500 nonsense.
The 4.60 ERA mustered by O's starters this year is the second-worst in the whole American League. It's nearly a full point worse than what last year's starting rotation accomplished. Even if Chen were not set to leave, the team would need help. With Chen probably on his way out the door, they definitely need help.
The long road down to the bottom
How did things get to this point? Not only are the Orioles ranking as the worst system for pitchers, in the words of Fangraphs' Tony Blengino, "it isn't really close."
Though Dan Duquette hasn't espoused the "grow the arms, buy the bats" philosophy of his predecessor Andy MacPhail in so many words, he has at least paid lip service to the importance of being able to restock the cupboard from the farm system. Thus far the results have just not been there.
Not all of that can be laid at Duquette's feet. Two of the last four Orioles first round picks - Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey - are starting pitchers who were ranked among the better prospects in baseball. They are the kinds of guys you want to draft and get into your system. Bundy was a top 5 prospect in all of MLB prior to his 2013 Tommy John Surgery. Harvey ranked as high as #20 before this season, although he has ended up not pitching at all this year and is in that vague, maybe-needs-Tommy John range.
If those two guys had maintained their health and development tracks, nobody would have much negative to say about the O's pitching depth or development processes. Maybe they've done things wrong to not stave off those injuries, but maybe those were just the cards they were dealt. It's a problem for the franchise, though maybe it's not particularly their fault.
Where they have shot themselves in the foot, at least in terms of trying to build a pipeline of pitchers that is continually flowing upwards to the MLB level, is in the trades that Duquette has made over the last two seasons.
Orioles fans have gone around and around on the question of whether it was a good idea to give up Eduardo Rodriguez when acquiring Andrew Miller from the Red Sox at last year's trade deadline. Rodriguez is the #10 pitching prospect in Blengino's rankings. That's a player who was in the O's system and now isn't. At least they got some good performance from Miller, which is better than can be said of either of this year's trade acquisitions.
When trying to improve the 2015 team, Duquette continued to deal from his deck of pitching prospects. The trade for Travis Snider, where the O's surrendered a pair of lefty prospects - Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley - to the Pirates, could have been a problem even if Snider had performed decently for the team. Snider was a disaster area. The team was very nearly worse for having played him at all.
Are either of these prospects guaranteed stars or even guaranteed future big leaguers? No. But when you're a team that sits where the Orioles sit, you need every lottery ticket you can get for pitchers. The more you have, the more you might hit. The Orioles have given all of theirs away.
They didn't stop with the Snider trade either, as they traded away another potentially interesting pitching prospect, Zach Davies (#77 in Blengino's rankings) at the trade deadline this year in order to get Gerardo Parra in order to bolster a still-problematic corner outfield situation. Parra has all-too-predictably regressed from what was, before the trade, a BABIP-fueled career year. This trade didn't solve much for the O's, but they gave up another arm to make it.
It's not like the Orioles gave up top arm after top arm in these trades. They wouldn't have the #1 pitching depth in baseball if they hadn't made them. They might not even be in the top ten. They'd be better off, though, especially as it relates to the picture for 2016. Rodriguez would certainly be in the picture, and between Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, and Zach Davies, the Orioles could probably have their hands on a fifth starter.
Instead, they'll almost certainly need to sign a free agent starting pitcher, and it's no sure thing that Wilson or Wright will lock down the fifth spot. Plus there won't be much depth waiting behind them. Say someone gets hurt or has his ERA balloon in a Bud Norris way. Who's coming up next? Bundy has to be on either the 25-man roster or the MLB disabled list, but it's tough to imagine him holding down a rotation spot all year, or at all, given he has combined to throw 63.1 innings over the past three seasons.
After him, for immediate help, you start dipping into names like Joe Gunkel, or a version of Parker Bridwell who's for the first time walking fewer batters. If the success of the Orioles season relies on answering the, "Who's next?" question for the pitching staff more than once, it's going to be a long year.
This is a problem for the organization. It's not a problem that has a short-term solution. They need to draft better, develop better, and stop trading so many pitching prospects away. None of these can be achieved in time for next year. What's there now is what will be there next spring. Help is not on the way, so those who remain need to improve if the O's are going to get anywhere.