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The back end of the Orioles rotation struggling is all too familiar

On paper it looks like the Orioles have improved, but if you watched the back end of the rotation early on, you might not feel that way.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

As it stands right now, the Orioles are sitting at 5-2 and in first place in the AL East! It’s been a hot start for the team, much like last year when they started the season 7-0. The similarities don’t stop there.

The Orioles certainly have their identity, particularly on offense, and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. All signs point to another boom-or-bust offensive season leading the league in home runs, ranking near the bottom of the league in on-base percentage and a frustrating propensity to strike out at the least desirable of times.

It makes sense though when you consider that the offensive core of the team remains intact. Jones, Machado, Trumbo, Davis, Schoop, Hardy- all still here. Rickard and Kim are still patrolling platoon outfield spots, Caleb Joseph is still backing up at catcher, and Ryan Flaherty is still backing up all the remaining positions.

To simplify both the 2016 and 2017 offensive rosters greatly, the main differences lie in swapping Wieters for Castillo, Alvarez for Mancini, and Nolan Reimold for Seth Smith. To be fair, all three moves have already shown potential to improve the club. But in the grand scheme of things, it could be argued that none are likely to significantly move the proverbial needle. The biggest benefit of all may simply be taking away Trumbo’s glove on a day-to-day basis.

Considering this argument, nearly all potential improvements from last season will lie on the shoulders of the pitching staff. With another dominant bullpen, they will lie particularly on the rotation. And as is Orioles tradition, at least in recent memory, there are still some major question marks there. Let’s start things on a positive note.

Glass half-full

If you’re confident in the Orioles improvements from last season, it’s probably rooted in an improved rotation. And while hopes are at an all-time high for the Bundy/Gausman tandem, deservedly so, there is a very real argument to be made that excludes their development altogether. It starts when you consider exactly how bad some of our starters were last season, particularly at the back end of the rotation.

Here is a friendly reminder of some of the Orioles starting pitching from 2016, and you may want to make sure you’re seated. It is not good. In fact, it’s probably even worse than you remember.

Last year, the all-star quintet of Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, and Wade Miley combined for a total of 84 starts for the Birds. 84! Literally more than half the games. The lowest ERA of any pitcher in that group in 2016 belonged to Tyler Wilson, sporting a cool 5.27. We essentially played an entire season starting the ERA equivalent of Mike Wright in every other game. Think about that. It’s going to be tough, even for the Orioles, to repeat a collective performance that poor in 2017.

Now you may already be realizing that two of those aforementioned pitchers are still securely in the rotation, Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley. Fortunately, it is easy to be optimistic about the pair.

First and foremost, despite his 5.44 ERA in 2016, Ubaldo pitched extremely well for the Orioles down the stretch last season. He was probably the team’s most valuable starter through August and September. If he can return to that form, or even what he showed in 2015 when he was a 2 WAR player, it will be a drastic improvement over his 2016 season as a whole.

As for Wade Miley, all he may need to improve on from last season is sample size. After being acquired by the Orioles, he was hurt by an extremely unlucky BABIP of .389 compared to his career average of .310. Meanwhile, his FIP was surprisingly the lowest among all Orioles starters, lower than Tillman’s, Gausman’s, and Bundy’s. Another sign of good old-fashioned bad luck. With a full season of starts, Miley’s stats should hopefully normalize towards his career averages.

They key is that Ubaldo and Miley don’t have to be particularly good at all this year to count as an improvement for the Orioles. They simply have to eat innings and keep their ERA’s in the mid-4’s, something that their careers to this point have suggested they’re more than capable of. That alone would represent a significant improvement to the Orioles rotation when compared to 2016. And that’s without factoring in the emergence of Gausman and Bundy at all. So far this season, it unfortunately hasn’t been that easy.

Glass half-empty

After last night’s start where he was handed a 9 run lead and still failed to make it through the fifth inning, Ubaldo’s ERA sits at 10.38. Now I would expect it to start coming down at some point, but a 10.38 earned run average is objectively terrible. Equally terrible is walking 7 batters in 5 innings. And in case you missed it, that is exactly what Wade Miley did in his first start of the season on Sunday. Miley’s overall lack of command did not evoke signs of improvement.

With Tillman still on the DL with shoulder trouble, suddenly the idea of another 84 games started by pitchers with ERA’s over 5 creeps back into the realm of possibility. While no one outside of Alec Asher in Norfolk appears to be aware of the Orioles open spot in the rotation this Saturday, the O’s are going to have to start someone.

If Tillman’s DL stint is extended, are we fully confident in Dan Duquette’s shuttle squad of optionable AAAA pitchers to fill in? To this point, outside of Alec Asher, the Norfolk starters have shown that they may deserve demotions to AA more than promotions to the big leagues. Between the possible starting options of Wright, Verrett, Aquino, Ynoa, and Lee, Mike Wright owns the best ERA of the group at 8.59 over two starts. The Norfolk staff is not inspiring a lot of confidence at the moment.

Hopefully Tillman returns in early May as Orioles executives have suggested, but even so, are there any guarantees that he will be able to pitch as well as he did last season or as well as he did from 2012 through 2014? There are no certainties. Remember, Tillman himself posted an ERA of 4.99 in 2015 and definitely struggled at times last season.

If Bundy and Gausman are for real, there will still be around 100 starts to be had by other pitchers on the Orioles roster. With no strong signs of improvement shown from Miley or Ubaldo thus far, and a struggling AAA rotation lacking in legitimate prospects, the Orioles may quickly find themselves repeating their 2016 performance.

Real talk

It’s easy to be pessimistic when it comes to the Orioles rotation, extremely easy. But even with as little promise as Miley and Ubaldo have shown to this point in the season, you have to imagine that both will be able to improve on what were the worst seasons ERA-wise in their respective careers. They have to, right? Ask me again in two months but for now I’m sticking with my preseason hopes.

As long as Tillman is able to come back healthy in May, which I think is still a sizable “if,” I don’t see the back end of our rotation struggling nearly as much as it did in 2016. When you factor in the emergence of Bundy and the continued development of Gausman, I think our rotation will be much improved as a whole.

The Orioles will need any improvements they can get across the board. It’s not like the rest of the AL East has been sitting on their thumbs since last year. The competition should be much better within the division this season and the Orioles will need to improve if they want to return to the postseason for the fourth time in six years. Hopefully the rotation (and a fully healthy Chris Davis) is able to make it happen.

Where do you fit in? Will the rotation ever get into a rhythm? Do you see another 80+ starts being made by failing pitchers? Drop into the comments and let us know.