When the Orioles signed Yovani Gallardo, the starting rotation seemed to be set in stone. The four returning players from last year's corps plus Gallardo makes five, and five is all you need, right? That's seemed to be a safe assumption as spring training has gone along. The ones who would break camp in the rotation are the ones you would expect.
Or at least, that's what it seemed like until manager Buck Showalter offered a comment to O's reporters following the latest O's spring tie on Tuesday afternoon. After a game in which Chris Tillman struggled in his spring debut and Tyler Wilson pitched well, Showalter told reporters, "There is some competition there that I don't think people understand."
That is a shot across somebody's bow in the existing group of starting pitchers, at least if we take it at face value. It's not immediately clear if the "people" he means who don't understand are reporters and pundits or his own players, but either way, it's something to get your attention. Before talking about that competition, Showalter offered a lot of praise for Wilson based on today's outing, and also mentioned Mike Wright and Odrisamer Despaigne positively.
At the same time, this is one of those statements where Showalter would probably say the same thing whether or not there was any competition to be had. With the expected O's rotation struggling in the way that they have, that gives more reason to consider it.
The five anyone could guess are: Tillman, Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kevin Gausman, and Miguel Gonzalez.
Before the O's signed Gallardo, you could also have guessed there was a #5 starter competition between Wilson, Wright, Vance Worley, and Despaigne.
Absent an injury, for one of the W's to push his way up into the rotation, someone else would have to lose his spot. Being as they are on multi-year free agent contracts to be starters, we can probably safely rule out Gallardo or Jimenez being the guy. Tillman is more likely to be the Opening Day starter than he is to lose his rotation spot, regardless of his 2015 struggles. He hardly seems worth considering for losing his spot, at least to me.
While one can never entirely discount that the Orioles aren't done screwing around with Gausman, they couldn't possibly do that again, could they? This is a scenario too depressing to contemplate. Until cruel reality intervenes, I will proceed as though Gausman has a rotation spot locked down.
That leaves only Gonzalez, who, by the strange arc of his career, is 31 years old but still has a minor league option remaining. Gonzalez's 2015 struggles have been hashed out repeatedly. After having a June 9 cut short by an oblique injury that landed him on the disabled list, Gonzalez returned about two weeks later and was bad from there on, posting a 6.53 ERA the rest of the way.
Are 14 bad starts and a bad spring enough to kick out a guy from the rotation who has three seasons worth of track record for success? It's in the Orioles best interest to field the best five pitchers in the starting rotation that they possibly can, but sometimes other concerns intervene, which could be as simple as wanting to give a guy time to work things out.
It would be out of character for the Orioles to bounce Gonzalez. That doesn't mean they won't do it, just that it would be a surprise, an action running counter to their usual pattern. It also seems out of character for the O's to option a guy who's got a $5 million price tag this year. Then again, they don't necessarily have to option him to have him not be in the starting rotation to begin the season, if they do have concerns about his performance.
Gonzalez could end up being the long man out of the bullpen if overtaken by Wilson or someone else for a spot in the starting rotation. The long relief spot in the bullpen is pretty much the only one that doesn't seem to be set already.
This still seems unlikely to me, but with Showalter hinting at some competition, that makes it a bit more likely than yesterday that it happens like that. Gonzalez could occupy that spot and send the other competitors for it either to the waiver wire (Worley) or the Norfolk rotation (T.J. McFarland). Not many people are likely to lose sleep if Worley doesn't make the team or if McFarland spends another season riding the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle.
Maybe it's all just making a mountain out of a molehill from a throwaway Showalter comment. That can happen sometimes in spring training for lack of anything else to talk about. Perhaps he was just trying to encourage the Wilson/Wright/Worley contingent by opening the door to the idea of a competition that doesn't actually exist. But it is interesting that he said it.