That the Orioles are going to sign free agent starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo has been treated as an inevitability by the mainstream baseball media since last week. They seem to be about the only people who see the move as a positive one for the O's.
You already know the reasons why it's a bad idea for the O's to sign Gallardo. Concerns over his velocity are legitimate. He's lost two miles per hour off his fastball since his most successful seasons, from which he's now three seasons removed. His strikeout rate has fallen off the cliff, declining by nearly 40% since 2012. He'll cost the Orioles the #14 draft choice. He might cost up to $15 million per year for three years.
Against this tide of negativity, the usual suspects have deployed arguments that don't inspire confidence. At one point, a writer actually cited Gallardo's ERA in three career starts against the Blue Jays (out of 244) and then noted, "Yes, the Orioles have noticed."
This is an eye-rolling thing that suddenly becomes terrifying. What if someone in the Warehouse is actually weighing that fact as a positive, rather than a meaningless small sample size? This has to have been someone trolling the reporter. Right?
Other places, Gallardo is treated like a 200+ IP innings eater despite the fact that he hasn't done that since 2012, when his fastball had an extra 2 mph and he struck out nearly a quarter of the batters he faced. In the most recent season, Gallardo averaged fewer than 5.2 innings per game started and he struck out about 15% of the batters he faced. This is not the profile of a person who will be "saving the bullpen."
As the resident pessimist of Camden Chat, reacting negatively to these rationales is as natural for me as breathing. Maybe there is something I am missing from being laser focused on the potential downsides. A re-examining of the assumptions is overdue. So, the question I'd like to pose is this:
What if a Gallardo signing isn't an awful idea?
There is middle ground between the panic and the cheerleading. There's a real possibility that Gallardo will still manage to be a positive presence for the Orioles, even if he's not going to be what they're acting like he will be. I'm not saying it's a good idea, because it's not, but there are rational reasons why it may not turn out horribly.
First and foremost, although Gallardo isn't an innings eater, he is a reliable starter. That matters for the O's when their depth situation is what it is. Gallardo has now started 30+ games for each of the past seven seasons. It's not a coincidence that in 2014 when the O's won the division, they only had six pitchers start a game. The ability to answer the bell when it rings matters. There's no denying his track record here.
Gallardo's presence would push what figures to be the fifth starter competition into the Norfolk rotation. The O's don't have to open the season up hoping for something from Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Odrisamer Despaigne, or someone else.
They can be there waiting if someone gets hurt, rather than having one of them start out in the rotation and then the next best gets pressed into service after a DL trip. The less the O's need to experience their depth, the better.
One of the more frustrating arguments made approvingly about Gallardo is that he must be OK since he posted a 3.42 ERA in 2015. It's true that was 11th-best in the AL and that would have been nice to have in the O's rotation. When combined with his declining strikeout rate and velocity loss, the notion that he's likely to regress towards his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) number of 4.00 seems strong.
Gallardo could regress and still be OK
If he shows up and posts a 4.00 ERA for the O's, that's not going to excite anyone, yet it would still be about league average. That's a marked improvement compared to last year's O's starting rotation. The trio of Wilson, Wright, and Bud Norris started a combined 25 games and posted a 6.18 ERA over 122.1 innings pitched. That's not even an average of five innings per game started. Gallardo seems like a good fix when compared to that.
A big concern about Gallardo is the velocity decline. Although he's definitely lost a tick on the radar gun, he's also worked between 90-91 for the past three seasons, the worst of which was an OK season (4.18 ERA in 2013). Two of the seasons were pretty good. He even kicked up to a 91.4mph average fastball in 2014 after working with a 90.7mph average in 2013.
Rather than a continuing decline, perhaps his velocity has simply slipped a bit but is still holding steady above 90. He might even be able to bounce back up to 91 in the year to come.
I wouldn't want to be the one making that bet, but one would hope the O's can make a more informed guess about what will happen than I can. Gallardo turns 30 later this month, and while that's not spring chicken territory for baseball players, he isn't exactly old yet either. A three year commitment would run through his age 32 season. It's not outrageous.
Keeping the ball on the ground
One thing that has not declined for Gallardo is his ground ball rate. In fact, that has ticked up from the mid-40% range to the 49-50% range over the past three seasons. Whatever else you're worried about for the 2016 O's, you're probably not worried about their infield defense, and it may be that a strength for Gallardo at this point of his career plays right into the O's strengths as well.
Gallardo's BABIP allowed as he worked his way to that 3.42 ERA was a .303, slightly above his career number. So while he may have been lucky to have an ERA as low as he did, it wasn't BABIP-fueled luck where one must fear regression.
With that ground ball rate and the O's infield defense, Gallardo might even find BABIP luck starts to be on his side where it hasn't been before. Given that the declining strikeout rate means more balls are being put in play than earlier in his career, that's an important thing to be working in his favor.
Here's another thing. Even using Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement, which is unkind by basing its calculation on FIP, Gallardo was worth 2.5 WAR in 2015. The value he provided, as they measure it, was $20.2 million. By bWAR instead, which considers Gallardo's solid ERA - you know, what actually happened - he posted a 4.1 WAR.
Like him or not, whatever worries there are, the going rate for a pitcher of that caliber is going to be in the range of $15 million/year - and he stands at least a decent chance of earning that, even if his performance isn't great. Gallardo can be merely OK and still be worth $15 million.
There are a lot of ifs and maybes up there, and none of them address the obvious counterpoint that, if the Orioles can't really afford to be paying $15+ million for average-ish performance, the best way to avoid having to do that is to draft and develop their own pitchers, which they won't be able to do if they're doing stuff like giving up the #14 pick to sign Gallardo.
That's a problem for the Orioles of 2019 and beyond, though. The need for what Gallardo could provide in the meantime with even a middle ground outcome is great. The future Orioles can't be ignored entirely or the franchise will be in peril. Still, the present Orioles shouldn't be ignored either. The Orioles have been good recently and should do what they can to keep being good while their best players are still under contract.
Is that enough to outweigh all of the downsides? I remain unconvinced. That said, there's enough potential there that, even if you don't really like the idea of the Gallardo signing, you should at least appreciate that there's some logic behind it. It might not end up being as bad as we fear.
Hopefully it's all well-reasoned on the O's part and not something where they're so desperate that they can only cross their fingers and pray for the best. Maybe Gallardo will even do well against the Blue Jays after all.