The Orioles are coming off of a season where they won 89 games and qualified for the postseason, an outcome that, especially compared to preseason expectations, is fantastic. That they made it so far was no thanks to their starting rotation, a unit that collectively posted a 4.72 ERA, the third-worst of any American League team.
The eight starting pitchers who started at least ten games for the 2016 Orioles all figure to remain with the organization. Five of those eight ended the season with ERAs over five, and of that group, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Wade Miley are signed for a combined $34.4 million for next season. It’s not a good situation.
One person who is not concerned about the state of the starting rotation is Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette. Here’s an actual quote from Duquette from earlier this week, courtesy of MLB.com’s Brittany Ghiroli:
"Our starting pitching is all right going into the season. They've all won more than they've lost over the course of their career. We have six starters going in, which is something we haven't had."
Obviously, that’s a ridiculous thing to say from anyone who spent the season watching the Orioles starting rotation or even just looking at their results, a group of people that I can only assume includes Duquette.
Before anybody comes along and says, “Wow, Duquette is a moron if he really believes that,” consider that he probably doesn’t believe it. But he can’t go up to a reporter and say, “Yeah, you know, our starting pitching was so horrible, and there aren’t any free agents to sign, plus we don’t have any budget to sign them, so get ready for another horrible starting rotation next year.” Even if he believes that very thing, which he might, he can’t be the one who says it.
For a guy who came to Baltimore with a reputation for not doing well with the media, Duquette gets along fine with the Orioles bunch. Maybe that’s because Boston’s still-numerous media machines were more likely to press him than the depleted Baltimore media landscape would about quotes like this:
"We have some starting-pitching depth," Duquette said. "Some young guys who came through and progressed, and some veterans that have terrific incentive to pitch well.”
Here is a classic piece of Duquette-ian obfuscation. What a great phrase there: “Some veterans that have terrific incentive to pitch well.” He doesn’t actually say that they’re going to pitch well. He doesn’t say that he hopes they pitch well, which would give an inkling that maybe he doesn’t believe they will. He just says they have incentive to pitch well. The trio I mentioned above will all be looking for their next contracts.
Do the Orioles really have pitching depth? Considering that the makeup of their depth is the same guys who failed this year, not so much. I’ve joked in the past that the Orioles have depth in the way that quicksand has depth, in that once you experience it for yourself, you’re dead.
This is how it went for them in this past season. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson may be available, but they are not depth.
All joking aside, maybe Duquette’s guarded sorta-optimism is not even that outrageous. Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman are probably not guys you have to worry about. Dylan Bundy would make 60% of a nice rotation, though it’s a stretch to project him to make 30 starts.
Miley, based on his 2015 track record in the AL East, ought to be better than he pitched as an Oriole, and Jimenez has it in him to pitch how he pitched in August and September. There’s a lot of probably/ought/maybe in that sequence there, but it’s a plausible outcome, and with the state of the pitching free agent market, Duquette’s Orioles have little choice but to believe in it.
And at the risk of adding in another might, the Orioles might even see their starting rotation improve next year just by virtue of deploying a better outfield defense. It turns out that if you use corner outfielders who are actual outfielders, and capable of catching baseballs, you might actually give up fewer runs.
Whether they are able to improve the outfield defense over this offseason is another question too, of course, but there is at least room on the roster to find one. The budget may be another story.
It’s no guarantee that the Orioles will do better than the Trumbo/Rickard/Kim corner outfield situation, defensively, but it is hard to be worse. Even average defenders at the corners would be a big improvement and a big step to improving the pitching with the same group of starters.
It could be done! And it’s going to have to be, because Duquette just told us that the starting pitchers are going to be the same next year. He’s just about the only person who’s happy about that. Orioles fans will be hoping that he turns out to be right.