The Orioles tried something weird this season with the stockpiling and use of numerous pitchers with minor league options, creating a revolving door that they surely hoped would be able to maximize the value they got from the marginal spots on the roster. While they may have found a couple of pieces for the near future, this O’s strategy also returned a lot of failure that was at times unpleasant to watch unfold.
This heavy reliance on the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle was a strategy that had a very good first month. Thanks to a lot of April off days, the Orioles were able to get by with a four-man starting rotation in the absence of Chris Tillman, keeping both a seven-man bullpen and a five-man bench. The near-daily optioning of a variety of pitchers at the end of the bullpen meant there was always a fresh arm.
That’s how it worked in April with so many off days. After that, success from this group was more sporadic, especially once you discount the solid contributions of two players, Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro, who pitched well enough to lock down roster spots for most of the season.
A total of 26 pitchers appeared in games for the Orioles this season. It was an unstable unit, much like the 2016 O’s, who used 26 pitchers plus one Ryan Flaherty appearance to get through the season. It’s not good to need that many pitchers. The division-winning 2014 Orioles got through the season using just 20.
Depending on how you want to define it, as many as half of those pitchers could fall in the category of the Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle. A significant number of those arrived from outside the organization since January as either waiver claims or trades for players to be named later or cash; Castro even joined the Orioles after spring training. This was always designed to be an unstable arrangement.
For the sake of proclaiming judgment on this strategy as a whole, I’m counting the following eleven pitchers, in descending number of 2017 MLB innings pitched: Castro, Bleier, Alec Asher, Gabriel Ynoa, Mike Wright, Jimmy Yacabonis, Tyler Wilson, Vidal Nuno, Jayson Aquino, Stefan Crichton, and Logan Verrett.
The common thread among these pitchers is that they entered the season without defined roles and, when used at the MLB level, were often used for more than one inning at a time. Most were up and down multiple times during the season.
Collectively, those eleven pitchers threw 336.1 innings for the Orioles this season, or about 23% of their total innings, while posting a combined 4.63 ERA. That’s actually not too bad for the dregs of the roster. I would be glad to have had a 4.63 ERA pitcher in the rotation instead of Tillman, Jeremy Hellickson, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Wade Miley.
The relative success of Castro and Bleier hides a lot of ugliness from the other shuttle riders, however. Without their innings, the other nine guys pitched 206.2 innings with a 5.79 ERA. Now that’s looking a lot more Oriole-like. When most were called upon, they were not good.
This unit only got so much work because of the continual immolation of the Orioles starting rotation. They did fail collectively, but that’s only because the starters failed first by having the highest ERA in MLB and the fewest innings thrown in the AL.
To be sure, it would have been nice if, say, Asher, had a lower ERA than 5.25. But it’s not his fault he had to throw 60 innings, you know?
The non-Castro and Bleier pitchers spent a lot of time with the Tides this year. That many of them were not any good with Norfolk either probably contributed to why the Orioles were not willing to use many guys for long stretches. Maybe the shuttle riding itself took a toll on some pitchers. If you’re on the fringe, though, that’s life and you’ve got to overcome it.
In using all of these pitchers, Dan Duquette tried something new and different this year. It largely failed but worked in small amounts, so it could have been worse. The fact that the Orioles have found a couple of possible answers for next year’s staff means that there was some success out of this group. Now, just don’t make me watch them do this again next year. Get a real rotation already!
Tomorrow: Miguel Castro in greater detail