The Orioles league-worst starting rotation was so bad in the 2017 season that it was, at times, unfathomable. The only positive about it is that most of the bad pitchers are free agents. Yet the O's still entered the offseason needing to fill three holes in that rotation if they want to avoid filling innings with the dregs of MLB again. If they ever had any hope of doing that, those hopes have been dashed in the past week.
A flurry of signings of players who, according to Baltimore Baseball's Dan Connolly, had interested the Orioles, has depleted the market of guys they might have signed without costing them big bucks.
That's a group that includes Coors Field escapee Tyler Chatwood, now with the Cubs, returning-from-Japan Miles Mikolas to the Cardinals, and even Mike Fiers, who had a 5.22 ERA and chose one year with the Tigers over two years with the Orioles. The richest contract of the three was Chatwood's three years and $38 million. It is not a lot of money for a starter, unless you're viewing it through Orioles lenses.
O's GM Dan Duquette sounded like a man who has come face-to-face with the reality of the vanishing starters when he spoke to Orioles reporters towards the end of the first day of MLB's winter meetings. Some of those remarks, as relayed by MASN's Roch Kubatko:
There’s so many teams looking for pitching, we might have to be a little bit more proactive than that. The market’s dynamic and it’s starting to take shape and you see a lot of these teams looking at who they want to sign and who wants to sign with them. We’ve probably got to move a little bit quicker.
On one hand, it's nice to see Duquette acknowledge that the O's typical glacial pace that leads to their signing whatever free agent pitcher nobody else wanted in February (usually for good reason) is not going to work this time around.
On the other hand, with the way the signings have gone so far, this is the quintessential example of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Connolly wrote that there were four players who really interested the O's and at this point the only one of them who is left is Andrew Cashner.
Further complicating the O's efforts, although this is one of their standard self-inflicted handicaps, is an apparent unwillingness to offer more than three years to one of the free agent pitchers. "Those haven't worked out that well for the club," Duquette told O's reporters Monday, referring to 4+ year contracts to pitchers.
The Orioles have only handed out one to a starter: Ubaldo Jimenez. Is that really going to scare them away from attempting to sign any mid-tier or better pitcher forever? Let's hope not. Duquette went on to attempt to justify this untenable position:
There’s been some pretty decent pitchers that have been in this market without going to four or five years. There’s been some signings already where pitchers have signed for a couple years. They’re qualified major league players. So I don’t think you have to say you’ve got to go four or five years in that market to be competitive.
It's not entirely clear to me who Duquette means when he says "pretty decent pitchers in this market" that didn't get 4+ years as free agents. Duquette hasn't had a successful domestic free agent starting pitcher signing.
Counting international players, Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez were largely successes. Trades for Jason Hammel and Bud Norris provided one good season apiece for the Orioles. That's about it for guys who came from outside the organization in Duquette's tenure. And the last two seasons in particular, the Orioles rotation has decidedly not been competitive.
There is more risk in going 4-5 years in signing a player, of course. Jimenez is hardly the only failed signing at that level or higher. The Royals would seem to regret the five years and $70 million that they gave to Ian Kennedy. The Tigers certainly must regret the five years and $110 million to Jordan Zimmermann. The Orioles aren't the only team that can blow this stuff.
But sometimes you can get Ervin Santana for four years and $55 million - which the Twins did, and for which they have gotten a 3.47 ERA in the first three years, along with one first-year PED suspension. And the truly bold can end up with Max Scherzer for seven years and $210 million, which, at going rates for dollars per WAR, he has already nearly earned 70% of that in just three seasons... including back-to-back Cy Young campaigns.
The Orioles haven't seen back-to-back Cy Young campaigns since Jim Palmer did so in 1975 and 1976. They may never see them again. They're certainly not going to see one from a free agent if they're only signing guys to three years at most. The ones who are good enough to ever even compete for one Cy, let alone two, are worth more than that.
A recent Baltimore Sun article noted that if the 2018 season had to start today, the Orioles would end up with Mike Wright in their rotation. That's not what any fan wants to hear. Right now, they have only Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. They have to get three guys.
Or at least, you might think the Orioles have to get three guys. Duquette thinks they might be settling for two:
If we have a couple and we can get one from some of the guys we looked at (this) year, if you can get one from the group we looked at, whether it’s (Gabriel) Ynoa or (Miguel) Castro or somebody else from the minors, and we need a couple ... And we’d really like to get a left-hander. Not to just get a left-hander, but a left-hander who can get them out. We’d like to get a good one, but that’s a challenge.
If the Orioles only sign two pitchers, this does not inherently have to be horrible. There are probably still two good pitchers out there to sign, although it's less of a sure thing that there are two good pitchers left to sign who will not require more than three years.
If, on the other hand, the Orioles inexplicable obsession with having a left-handed pitcher in the rotation, the same one that led them to acquire Wade Miley in 2016 and continue using him all the way to the end of 2017, leads them to sign Jason Vargas, and that's one of the two guys, that's not such a great possibility. The lefty starter market doesn't get any prettier below Vargas.
And if the Orioles overall skittishness and indecisiveness leads to them sitting around on their butts while the mid-priced and even bargain free agents come off the board, leading to what may seem like a fated reunion with either Chris Tillman or Miguel Gonzalez, well, that wouldn't be all that exciting as one of the two guys, either.
This isn't even getting into whether the Orioles actually have an acceptable internal fifth starter option among all of the guys who failed as long relievers in 2017 plus Gabriel Ynoa and Miguel Castro. They might not! But it's easier to live with a fifth starter carousel as long as you don't also have a fourth starter merry-go-round and a third starter Tilt-o-Whirl that makes you want to barf.
It wasn't impossible for the Orioles to take steps to fix their rotation at the outset this offseason. Intriguing names were available, even if they were scared of paying a lot of money.
But the intriguing bargains are mostly gone now. The holes in the Orioles rotation are still there. They are going to have to find some way to figure this out. There is no guarantee that anyone will like the result. Reality is cruel like that.