While it might have been a bit premature to hit the panic button on the Orioles during the first week of spring training, it's certainly fair to at least hover over the button as the latter end of the month approaches - especially for the pitching staff. For Kevin Gausman and his role in the rotation, the time is now to get the train moving in the right direction.
As strange as it may seem, the Orioles have settled into a spot where Gausman could be the glue that keeps this rotation together.
It's ultimately where they've wanted to be all along since they drafted him in the first round of the 2012 Draft. Until now, the opportunity to call him a cornerstone hasn't presented itself. But as the rotation begins to shape up heading into the 2016 season, it might be time for Gausman to begin the rise toward the prime of his career.
Of course, it's wishful thinking to imagine Gausman eventually becoming the ace of the staff - but is it really that far fetched? He's only 25 and has less than 275 innings of major league work under his belt. And considering his numbers have gotten better (despite the ERA due to a rise in HR/9 rate), it's safe to say he's on an encouraging track.
Luckily for the Orioles, this expected rise comes at a time where doom and gloom is the theme of the pitching headlines approaching the season.
As things currently stand here on March 16th, it hasn't exactly been pretty to watch. Below, you'll find the less than encouraging numbers.
- Chris Tillman: 1 start, 1.2 IP, 5 H, 3 BB, 10.80 ERA
- Miguel Gonzalez: 3 starts, 5.2 IP, 18 H, 4 BB, 22.24 ERA
- Ubaldo Jimenez: 3 starts, 6.2 IP, 8 H, 5 BB, 9.45 ERA
- Yovani Gallardo: 2 starts, 4.1 IP, 8 H, 2 BB, 16.62 ERA
- Kevin Gausman: 1 start, 2 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 0.00 ERA
It has been a small sample size and numbers throughout the league aren't wildly impressive across the board. However, you'd be hard pressed to find a group that has struggled as much as this one early in March. To right the ship, Gausman's growth will be critical.
He definitely doesn't have to by Cy Young award material - nobody is asking for that in Baltimore this season. Very simply, he just needs to improve and continue pointing his arrow in the upward direction.
Just looking at his numbers over the past two seasons, you'll find a few encouraging and stable areas that can continue to be improved on as he begins the trek toward becoming a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter. Most notably, zeroing in on the walk and strikeout ratios makes for an intriguing conversation. From '14-'15, BB/9 dropped from 3.0 to 2.3 and K/9 jumped drastically from 7.0 to 8.3 (103 Ks in 112.1 innings).
As he establishes himself in the heart of the starting five, it's nice to imagine both trends continuing and pushing the tops of the MLB charts.
As his FanGraphs numbers show, he's certainly in for a monster 2016 if his in-depth numbers see more improvements. Not only did his ground ball rate rise and line drive numbers dip, but the matchups against left-handers saw a drastic swing in Gausman's favor. Check out the numbers against lefties:
This gives a nice peek at his 2015 improvements and proves why it's a bit unfair to judge last year based off of win-loss and ERA (two stats that are incredibly unreliable to begin with). After all, he battled a lack of stability through the early portion of the season and still managed to keep his hits/9 rate at 8.7 - not to mention a WHIP of 1.23 that dropped nearly a tenth from '14.
When it all boils down, just remember one thing: Gausman is as good as any arm in the organization. And as Opening Day approaches, it's looking more and more likely that he'll be the guy most feared by opponents as long as his numbers stay even remotely consistent.
He'll get the nod today against the Pirates in a game that presents a golden opportunity to spark the staff ... or at the very least, provide some encouraging starting pitching news for O's fans.
The lack of positivity has been a bit draining across Birdland, and it's about time for things to come together from those toeing the rubber.
As we've already spotlighted on, there isn't an enormous need to see Gausman go four scoreless innings with five strikeouts - as nice as it would be - and have the outing of his life. We're still weeks away from any result actually mattering. In the grand scheme of things, it'd merely be reassuring to have at least one of the starters keep momentum leading into the latter portion of the spring.
At the end of the day, Gausman can ultimately be the light at the end of the tunnel. Projecting success is exciting and dangerous in the same breath, but his particular situation is worthy of high expectations.
The Orioles have something special available in a young arm for once, and early success will undoubtedly electrify everyone involved.
The underlying truth is a simple one - the forecast for the starting staff is weak.
But with a quality season from Gausman, there might just be a bit more room for postseason hope in the orange and black faithful across the map.