One of those truths assumed to be so ironclad that it may as well be divine law is that Scott Boras clients do not sign contract extensions before becoming free agents.
That assumption took a beating on Monday night when the Washington Post's Chelsea Janes reported that Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg, a pending free agent, has agreed on a seven-year extension with the franchise.
The extension is interesting in the larger baseball world not just because of the curiosity of a Boras client taking it, but also because Strasburg, who will turn 28 in July, has been widely seen as the best of the coming free agent crop by far. Instead, he's re-upped with the Nationals for another seven years and $175 million guaranteed.
Can you imagine the Orioles ever signing a pitcher to a contract worth $175 million? Although the O's did commit $168 million to Chris Davis this past offseason, he is a different case since he had history with the Orioles. Even more significantly, Davis is a position player, that one awesome extra innings performance in Boston from 2012 notwithstanding.
The biggest contract the O's have ever committed to a pitcher remains Ubaldo Jimenez's four year, $50 million deal.
Even if the Orioles were somehow willing to throw that much money at a pitcher, which is an unlikely enough thing to imagine to begin with, they're also going to get frozen out of these high-end contracts due to their reluctance - so far, complete resistance - to offering opt-outs. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports says Strasburg can opt out after years three and four of his contract.
I'm not saying it'll never happen, but the next time the Orioles sign an honest-to-goodness top-flight starting pitcher on the free agent market will be the first time. Don't bet your mortgage on it. Especially not for this upcoming winter, because Strasburg was basically the only good name on the list. There's no one else out there at the top end who is about to be a free agent.
The answer must come from within
You already knew the Orioles were going to have to rely on developing their own pitching staff. I already knew it. The Orioles know it too, and have known it for a long time, even dating back to unsuccessful seasons under previous GM Andy MacPhail and his "grow the arms, buy the bats" philosophy.
The Strasburg extension does not give us any reason to think about anything we didn't already know. The Orioles aren't going to be doing this. They probably won't be handing Chris Tillman any Rick Porcello money (four years, $82.5 million) either. If the Orioles want to sustain their success in the long run, they are going to need to have another wave of pitchers coming to join them.
There is some potential for good news in the near future. No, there aren't any can't-miss pitching prospects still hanging out in the minor leagues. The good news is actually that the O's might not necessarily need the reinforcements this season or next.
That's only actually good news if you believe that the Orioles can assemble a solid rotation out of players who've started games for them this year, of course. It's a small sample size on everyone, but the small samples we've seen don't do much to make you think of either Mike Wright or Yovani Gallardo as answers to any question you want to ask.
Early results have been a bit more positive on Tyler Wilson and Vance Worley, at least if you only look at their overall ERAs. Wilson's got a 3.04 for the 2016 season, with Worley sporting a 2.89. Neither one has done as well as starters, though. Wilson posted a 4.02 ERA in his three starts, while Worley had a 5.06 over his two starts.
Just like that, seven names are down to three names, and the ever enigmatic Ubaldo Jimenez hasn't even been addressed. Maybe the Orioles don't need five competent starters anyway, depending on how good their offense really is. If they can manage "good enough" with this bunch, they're set until at least after the 2017 season.
On the farm, potential, but a lot of uncertainty
The bad news is twofold. If things go badly for the rotation over the next couple of seasons, whether it's due to injury or just plain poor performance, there's not another Kevin Gausman in the minor league ranks waiting to get a chance.
Even more bad news comes when you look beyond the 2017 season. At that point in time, as things stand right now, all of Gallardo, Jimenez, and Chris Tillman will be free agents. That is a lot of holes to contemplate plugging in the starting rotation at one time.
Can they plug those gaps with what they have already? That depends on how optimistically you view the Orioles list of top 30 prospects. Though the top name, Hunter Harvey, isn't a write-off, he also will end up going about two years between competitive pitches.
The next name, Dylan Bundy, is also a guy who had injury-related challenges to his development. Bundy should not be set in stone in any future starting rotation at this point in time. We haven't even seen him sustain success in the bullpen yet.
Still, there are a few guys currently in the upper minor league levels (Triple-A and Double-A) who might grind their way to the back end of the rotation. That's not the same as getting a Cy Young contender into the rotation, but it's better than giving up a draft pick to sign a Jimenez or Gallardo type.
Bowie's rotation currently has lefty Chris Lee and righty David Hess, both of whom have ERAs under 2.50 through five games. Standard disclaimer: Don't scout from minor league box scores. But seeing these guys find success is something - especially Lee, with only seven walks in 31.1 innings when command has been his biggest problem.
Another pitcher who started out in the Bowie rotation, Joe Gunkel, has earned himself a promotion to Norfolk, where through two starts he has a 1.46 ERA. It's another small sample, so it would take some imagination to see him go on to be an MLB-caliber pitcher. He is at least a name in the periphery.
There's also the likes of Parker Bridwell, who is now on the 40-man roster but also keeps walking the world, and Ariel Miranda, an older (27) Cuban lefty in the Norfolk rotation.
It's asking a lot to think the Orioles could get three big league starters out of this crew. Maybe they'll get one, or, if they're lucky, two. They might also get none, leaving them in a horrible place for Manny Machado's last year of arbitration before he becomes a free agent.
We already know how they got here. They've traded too many prospects. To get Bud Norris, they gave up Josh Hader (now #4 in the Brewers system). To get Andrew Miller, they gave up Eduardo Rodriguez.
There were worse deals than those. Trading for Travis Snider, an utter failure in Baltimore, cost them Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley (#17 and #19 in the Pirates system, respectively). The Orioles also traded Zach Davies for Gerardo Parra, another failure in Baltimore.
Their outlook for the future would be better if they still had these guys kicking around. Davies or Rodriguez, both of whom have pitched enough that they're not prospects any more, might even be in the big league rotation picture right now. There's nothing they can do about that now except be more cautious about trading mid-tier prospects and giving up draft picks. Although I can dream about that, I won't be holding my breath, either.
Finding diamonds in the rough
The Strasburg contract is a reminder of why the Orioles need these diamonds in the rough for a couple of reasons. One, as I addressed earlier, is that they will not be signing any Strasburgs any time soon. The other is that, if we're lucky, the Orioles won't have the opportunity to draft the next Strasburg any time soon either.
Not to be forgotten is that the only reason the Washington franchise was able to draft Strasburg at #1 overall in 2009 is that they were really, really bad in 2008. The 2008 Orioles were also very bad - Garrett Olson-and-Brian Burres-in-the-rotation-level bad - and they were still nine wins better than the Nationals, who went 59-102.
The Orioles will have to settle for trying to find their answers from the Wright/Wilson tier of pitchers and from the Gunkel/Lee/Hess tier of pitchers. Maybe some day again they'll even have a good, healthy top pitching prospect that they don't spend years jerking between the majors, the minors, the rotation and the bullpen. OK, let's not get too carried away.