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With the Orioles looking for pitching depth, Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee could be their guys

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Joe Gunkel and Chris Lee are a pair of pitchers to watch when the Orioles hit the diamond in Sarasota this spring. If they keep developing, that will be good news for the team.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Duquette made it clear at the Orioles annual FanFest event over the weekend that the team is most certainly in the market for more veteran starting pitching depth. This may be the first time the Orioles GM has actually acknowledged that the current state of the team’s pitching depth is... well, frightening.

Let's be clear: like Buck Showalter, I like our guys.

Chris Tillman has grown into a reliable every-five-day option, Dylan Bundy appears primed for his emergence onto the national scene, and one would imagine that Kevin Gausman is set up to continue climbing the ladder towards the ceiling he wasq thought to have as a prospect.

One could be happier with their team’s starting trio, but the Orioles boast three arms that probably (crossing fingers for everyone in Baltimore here) won't unravel and derail the season completely.

With that said, the four and five slots are nothing short of a train wreck. And unfortunately, it's bad enough that nobody can even attempt to look away at this point.

Ubaldo Jimenez has BB/9 numbers of 5.5 and 4.6 in two of his last three seasons. On top of that, he’s coming off of a season in which he regressed mightily almost across the board. Entering his 11th season as a full-time pitcher, there’s reason for a hearty level of concern.

Paired with Jimenez at the rear of the rotation is Wade Miley, whose statistics pitching in the American League have been — well, about on par with the numbers he put up with the Orioles in 11 starts last season (6.17 ERA, 1.57 WHIP). The ceiling, I suppose, is slightly higher for Miley, but it’s very evident that his floor is on the same level as Jimenez’s.

If the Orioles maintain this rotation’s structure throughout the season, every fourth and fifth day is going to be a mystery. So if you’re reaching blindly into a bag of two possible outcomes (disaster and surprisingly productive starts), why rely on two 30+ year-old arms with likely maxed-out ceilings?

If these starts represent large question marks anyway, what should stop them, in June or July, from dipping into the minor-leagues to attempt to uncover a diamond in the rough for a potential playoff push?

Sure, there’s Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson, but a bit deeper down on the farm, we find two arms that can potentially bring a spark while owning a floor that is certainly no lower than that of Jimenez and/or Miley.

We’ve touched on Joe Gunkel before, so you’re probably familiar with at-least his name and general backstory. The 25-year-old righty was taken in the 18th round by the Red Sox and played some decent minor-league ball there before coming to Baltimore in a trade for Alejandro De Aza.

Last season in 24 starts at AAA Norfolk, Gunkel put up some of the following numbers:

  • 8-11, 4.08 ERA, 141.1 innings, 156 hits, 18 BB, 94 strikeouts
  • RHH: .294 average, LHH: .260 average
  • 3.98 ERA, 1.25 WHIP in the second-half with just 5 BB in 61 IP.

It’s important to note that Gunkel, throughout his time in the minors, has performed better — and very well overall — against left-handed hitting. That’s a big check in the pros column.

AAA hitting barreled him up a bit over the course of the year, but Gunkel, in the midst of developing a breaking ball as a third pitch, did a perfectly fine job at limiting damage and pounding the strike zone. His control was brilliant, as it’s been throughout the entirety of his time in the minors. With a low walk total and higher hits/9 number, it’s likely that the next step for Gunkel is taking the leap from possessing control to improving and grasping better command.

He’s on the organization’s 40-man roster and will undoubtedly be under the spotlight once the spring kicks off.

In a similar situation is left-hander Chris Lee, perhaps the star of the young pitching prospects who will be on display in Sarasota.

You’ll remember him from his season-ending lat injury after his brilliant start through eight games at double-A Bowie. In the 51.1 innings he tossed, Lee surrendered just a .222 average against, holding lefties to hit just .155.

He’s a left-hander who is effective at inducing ground balls and flashed signs of major improvement early in 2016.

If he needed any more hype heading into the year, check out the following quote from a guy you might know — Buck Showalter — from minicamp in early January:

“If he’s healthy, he’s a guy who will get on the radar screen in a hurry,” Showalter said. “In fact, he’s a guy that when we were thinking about left-handed pitchers and stuff last year, he has the type of fastball, he can pitch with his fastball. He’s got that type of movement. As slender as he was last year, he’s gotten a little bigger.”

I don’t know about you, but that kind of endorsement from the skipper tells me that Lee’s first big-league appearance is going to come sooner rather than later. If his outings in Norfolk are impressive, the Orioles have a decision to make.

And that decision, though it may not be made until the summer rolls around, applies to both Miley and Jimenez as well as any injury troubles that creep onto the scene in the rotation.

Basic logic says that neither Gunkel nor Lee will be the first option to take a starting spot when one becomes available, but there’s legitimate reason for the organization to turn in their direction if their reps at AAA are consistent with their 2016 numbers.

Ultimately, it returns to this basic idea: if a Jimenez and/or Miley start represents somewhat of a shot in the dark, what’s the harm in unleashing one of these two prospects when the time is right?

Stars aren’t born until their team decides to take a chance and allow them to take hold of the reins when a hole needs to be filled. And if the ‘17 Orioles season looks anything like previous campaigns, there will most definitely be an opportunity over the course of 162 games.

The choice is left to the team.

Regardless of the decision, I’m just glad we’re in a month where players are going to hit the diamond after the dreary baseball-free winter.

Let the competition begin!