The Orioles starting rotation is a unit loaded up with problems. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but the struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez and the injury to Yovani Gallardo have exposed the lack of depth in the Orioles system for MLB-ready starting pitching.
Things didn’t have to be this way, either. They had another choice for depth who they could have kept around. That was Miguel Gonzalez, who was released at the end of spring training in order to save about $3.5 million in salary.
With what’s gone on with the starting rotation since Gonzalez’s departure, it’s clear that the Orioles are now paying the price for trying to save money on Gonzalez.
Jimenez is the obvious culprit for a starting pitcher who needs to lose his spot if he doesn’t abruptly right his ship, but he’s hardly the only one who would be on the hot seat - or at least not the only one if he was in an organization with real pitching depth.
The Orioles are not such an organization, which is why their two players who pass for pitching depth, Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson, are currently in the starting rotation rather than waiting in the wings. In the long run the O’s may find that neither one belongs.
The problem with ditching Gonzalez
For now, the Orioles could use Gonzalez. They didn't have to release him, even if they were convinced he was incapable of contributing to the 2016 rotation right at the start of the season. They could have used a minor league option to send him to Norfolk, giving him time to either regain his form or at least be available as a better emergency option than Odrisamer Despaigne.
At the time, that specific move made some sense because Gonzalez did not have a good spring, so it was fair to wonder whether he had just reached the end of the line. He barely touched 90mph on the radar gun in any of his spring starts and his 87-88mph pitches were not being treated kindly by professional hitters.
However, we have since seen Gonzalez surface in the White Sox organization, where, since things are a mess, they quickly called on Gonzalez at the big league level even though he only signed a minor league contract. Even after Chicago made a big, surprising acquisition of James Shields, they still have kept Gonzalez around, choosing to release the struggling Mat Latos instead.
No wonder they have kept Gonzalez in their rotation when seeing what he’s done so far. I say this without having watched him in action, but a cursory perusal of his season numbers reveals a guy who still has some value, one whom the Orioles made a poor decision to cast aside so easily.
If the radar gun was the worry, Gonzalez has dispelled that, at least up to now. His average fastball velocity so far his 91.2mph, right in line with where he worked in his successful big league campaigns in 2013 and 2014. It's hard to argue, too, with his ERA of 3.57. That would look good in the O's rotation.
It’s worth noting that there are some red flags as well. It’s only been seven starts. Things may look differently after another seven starts. And even for now, there’s some concern that he’s averaging less than 5.2 innings per start he makes, while carrying a higher batting average against (.258) and WHIP (1.364) than he did in any of his good Orioles years.
Still, if the Orioles had been willing to absorb the entirety of Gonzalez's $5.1 million salary and just have him in Norfolk, they could have been the ones to look up and see what he has left. Now they are paying the price for pinching pennies over his salary.
A baseball team can always get more money. It can’t just shake a tree and have a guy with two and a half successful big league seasons under his belt fall out of it.
Which brings to mind one question:
Why did they do it?
There must be some answer, but the Orioles probably won’t be telling it. What made the Gonzalez release strange at the time, and leaves it feeling strange still, is that the Orioles conducted both their offseason, and spring training, spending as if a few million dollars wasn't going to make or break the bank.
The Orioles shelled out big bucks to keep Chris Davis, moderate bucks to keep Darren O’Day, and found themselves on the hook for the qualifying offer to Matt Wieters. They made a modest commitment to Hyun Soo Kim.
Once spring training arrived, they still signed Yovani Gallardo to a deal that will pay him $6.5 million this year (not counting deferred money) and also Pedro Alvarez to a deal worth up to $7 million.
And let's not forget the strange almost-signing of Dexter Fowler, which, according to what was being reported at the time, was supposed to be a three year signing worth $11 million per year. It’s safe to say the Orioles wouldn't have added Alvarez if they had gotten Fowler into the fold, but they would have been spending a few million dollars more as well.
Why make these last moves if they were scraping up against the limit of the budget, or even going beyond it? Were the Orioles planning how to dump some salary as soon as they signed Alvarez? Were they expecting to shave off a few million from the payroll when they believed they were very close to a deal with Fowler?
Fowler could well have seemed like a player who was worth busting the budget a bit to sign. With how he’s playing so far this year, batting .295/.403/.496 in 59 games, they would have been right about that. But could they have possibly believed that Alvarez was worth smashing through their budget number? This is something that it is hard to imagine being true.
What if Gonzalez had a good spring training? How would the Orioles have peeled away $3.5 million in payroll then? They might have released Vance Worley, saving about $2 million, or even Brian Matusz during spring training, saving $3 million. But maybe it wasn’t even about the money. Maybe they just gave up on Gonzalez too soon.
I wonder whether the much-discussed drop in attendance at Camden Yards has played a role in some of their payroll-shaving maneuvering, including the salary dump trade of Matusz to the Braves. Compared to their first 35 gates last season, O’s attendance is down about 18%.
That’s not all the Orioles’ fault. Lots of bad early weather surely played a factor, as well as a lack of any weekend series against the Red Sox, or even the Yankees struggles drawing fewer of their bandwagon fans. These things add up.
But maybe they made some optimistic revenue forecasts that just haven't borne out. They’d hardly be the first company to ever do so. Maybe they believed they’d sell the same number of tickets, just at this year’s increased price. Since that hasn’t proved true perhaps they’re harder up for cash than they should be.
Whatever it is, the O's must be smarter
If it was about the money, the Orioles need to not overspend their budget in the future so they don’t have to make any short-sighted salary dump moves like releasing Gonzalez or trading Matusz.
If it wasn’t about the money and it was just about deciding Gonzalez was toast, the Orioles need to be more patient in their evaluations of players who may still have something to contribute, especially when those players have a minor league option remaining and don’t have to be on the team or DFA'd.
The Orioles are never going to be some large-market team that can afford to spend its way out of mistakes. Everything that the Orioles do will have a cost down the road. Even saving money has a cost, as the case of Gonzalez shows.
The cost is not paid in money but in a lack of talent on the team in the short and long term. They are paying that cost now and every time they do something like this they will set themselves up to pay it again.