It's very difficult to win baseball games without starting pitching. If there's been a more obvious and simplified statement in the game of baseball, I'd certainly like to hear it. Ultimately, it's a very basic premise: pitch well, win games.
For the Orioles, that presumption has been equal parts true and false over the course of the 2016 season, but both inflated home run numbers (compared to the rest of the league) and offensive production throughout the lineup have played a unique role in "hiding" the performances of the starting arms.
With a 4.99 ERA, the Orioles are somehow 11 games over .500 on the season, almost effortlessly contending for first place in the AL East. It's unconventional, but it works - for 2016 at-least.
But what happens when Buck Showalter's team stumbles over a hurdle for a multi-week stretch in say July, or August?
More than that, how much will the winning percentage dip in next years to come if big bats leave town and/or simply lose production? Matt Wieters, Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo are all free agents after 2016, while contracts of Adam Jones and J.J. Hardy expire after the 2018 season.
Pair those contracts with the inevitable decline of one large piece to the home-run-hitting puzzle and you're left with one conclusion: the onus will soon fall upon the starting pitching.
For most teams in the league, over thinking what the pitching rotation will look like in a few seasons seems silly. The pro baseball system is designed to constantly stream new pitchers into the big leagues through the minor league system. For many, current three-to-four year outlooks are not a substantial concern.
Unfortunately, the same can not be said about the farm system in Baltimore. From top to bottom, the minor-league talent of the starting arms has shown to be much more than sub-par, teetering on levels of potential total panic from the front office.
Take a look at the Norfolk Tides starting production this season (only starters who have made 5+ starts).
As obviously shown, domination at the triple-A level simply isn't emerging. Additon, the best of the arms - on paper - has been shuffling around the minors since 2007, desperately looking for a shot to make it to The Show.
Other than Additon, Joe Gunkel provides the only true hope for a future MLB rotation spot holder in Norfolk. He's 24 and has the look of an MLB right-handed arm at 6'5", but has far from dominated the AA and AAA competition he's matched up against this year. There's hope, but nothing that jumps out as "pound the table" material for Buck Showalter.
Up and down the rest of the lower levels, there is talent, but it all comes with cautious optimism.
In Bowie, there's Chris Lee (2.98 ERA, just 19 strikeouts in 51 innings) and David Hess (3.35 ERA, 64 hits in 53 innings). In Frederick, Matthew Grimes (7-2, 1.09 ERA) and John Means (1.80 ERA, 1.06 WHIP),
You can find flashes of early-season success if you glance at the stat sheet, but what does that mean in the grand scheme of things? Can we surmise that a good handful of these hot 2016 starters will emerge as legitimate pro prospects, or merely step back and adjust to the realization that the organization as a whole is void of true "top prospects"?
The potential seems to be at-least peeking out for the Grimes' and Lee's of the world. But how do their skill-sets translate to the next level, the next level, and then major league caliber hitting?
Have they adjusted to their current surroundings and lack an ability to rapidly grow as their opposition does, or will they continue on a multi-year track to MLB potential?
These questions just begin to lay out the next steps for Dan Duquette and the organization moving forward. Perhaps Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright will emerge as legitimate options for seasons to come; maybe neither will improve, forcing the Orioles' hand in potential trade ventures.
No matter what happens, Duquette and Co. can't forget the era of baseball they're currently a part of. Pitching reigns supreme, and no team can afford to fall behind the rest in the long term.