Opening Day is less than two months away and the Orioles have done nothing to improve their league-worst rotation from 2017 other than wave good-bye to the four pitchers most responsible for that grotesque failure. The gaping holes on the roster have not been addressed and the Orioles continue to sound like they will not meaningfully address them.
Unless something changes as free agents start to eye the calendar and drop their asking prices, the Orioles appear to be determined to head into the 2018 season with 60% of their rotation consisting of the best three pitchers out of an array that includes Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes, last year's intriguing reliever Miguel Castro, and the revolving cast from the 2017 Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle like Gabriel Ynoa, Alec Asher, Mike Wright, and more.
The Orioles ability to recognize when their own pitchers are quality or salvageable, and how to salvage them if so, is regularly called into question, so there's not even a high degree of confidence that they would recognize the two or three best out of that lot if they saw them.
It all adds up to a downright concerning picture for the fortunes of the team as it heads into the last season before the probable great free agent exodus. One might reasonably conclude that the Orioles are on the path to disaster, with their inability to recognize this only making the magnitude of that disaster even worse when it strikes.
There is nothing particularly fun or interesting about projecting this disaster. If something has a 95% chance of happening and you guess that it will happen, you have showed no great intellect or insight, only a grasp of the obvious. And if this obvious disaster comes true as the spring and summer unfold, there is absolutely nothing that Orioles fans can do to ward it off. The path is set.
Until that cruel reality intercedes, there's always the same fantasy land in which the front office is apparently living. Though his methods and how they have turned into success for the past three even-numbered years are at times incomprehensible, that every-other-year success has happened for GM Dan Duquette.
Duquette has made some bad moves, but he is not an idiot, so let's just pretend he's right. What does a successful version of a 2018 Orioles starting rotation look like, based on what's been assembled so far and what might happen over the next three weeks?
With all of 639.2 big league innings under his belt, he is the veteran now, and in all likelihood, will be the Opening Day starter for a second consecutive season. Hopes for Gausman to make a big leap forward in 2017 were met instead with a setback of a season that we only didn't dwell on at the time because Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Wade Miley were so much worse.
When Gausman was drafted and publications like Baseball Prospectus were drooling over his potential, there was hope he might be among the league's better pitchers. That would be nice, but the Orioles don't need that, they just need the solid 3.61 ERA he posted in 2016.
The Orioles were finally able to turn Bundy loose for a full season in the rotation in 2017. He, they, and we were all surely hoping for better than a 4.24 ERA, but the fact that he made it through a full-ish workload of 169.2 innings without suffering any injuries was a success in its own right.
The 2017 story for Bundy was that he improved with extra rest. On normal rest, batters had a .779 OPS against Bundy in 13 starts. With one extra day of rest, that dropped to a .730 OPS over nine starts. With six or more days of rest, Bundy allowed just a .583 OPS. These are small sample sizes, but with it being Bundy's first real full season as a professional, an arm that benefited from that extra rest is a reasonable conclusion.
One reason it's important to stabilize the rest of the O's rotation is so they don't have to ride Bundy too hard. That hasn't nudged them into doing anything yet. Hopefully Bundy's second full season in the rotation can bring him more success on regular rest.
It sure seems like the Orioles are ready to give the Rule 5 pick a crack at a rotation spot. With a successful 2017 as a swingman split mostly between the Yankees Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, Cortes also has the benefit of throwing left-handed. The Orioles love the idea of a lefty in the rotation so much that they talked themselves into trading for Miley two seasons ago.
Cortes has his selling points. The 2.06 ERA across all levels, and 1.080 WHIP, stand out, as does the fact that he did not allow a home run to any of the 195 Triple-A batters he faced. That stint included 57 strikeouts in 48.1 innings. It's a long way from that to even a mediocre full season as an MLB starter, but if the Orioles are going to pull off some miracle, Cortes will probably be a part of it.
The best of the guys who were already here
You may recall that Duquette spent the early months of last year stockpiling any optionable arm whose current team was ready to give up on him. This group of players included Castro, Ynoa, and Asher. There are also some players whose organizational tenures are a bit longer than that, such as Wright and Chris Lee. Someone from this list will probably open the season in the rotation.
Articles from Orioles writers handicapping this group, including this one by Steve Melewski, treat Castro as the favorite. Considering that he was one of the few bright spots on the pitching staff last season, this is understandable. However, there's also a long way from the multi-inning relief role in which Castro found success to making 32 MLB starts. He only threw 90.1 innings between Bowie and Baltimore last year.
Castro and Cortes are both 23 years old. There is potential for the Orioles rotation to get a lot younger. If we're lucky, along with "younger" will come "better."
Some free agent
I mean, they have to, right? By not trading Manny Machado, the Orioles are "going for it," and it would sure seem like they must try to sign some free agent - probably a bounce-back candidate, since they will require less of a commitment of years and dollars - who might fill one of these open rotation spots. The idea of filling three rotation spots from the internal options is just nuts.
This imagined miracle rotation of mine will include Chris Tillman, mostly because I'm not going to believe that the Orioles won't re-sign him unless he signs somewhere else. They know him, they let him work out in Sarasota during the minicamp, and if his shoulder isn't in "stick a fork in him" territory - a big if, to be sure - he represents a good bounce-back possibility based on his track record from 2012-16.
Is any or all of this going to happen in such a way that the Orioles can have a decent rotation that helps them get back into the playoff picture? Probably not. But the Orioles didn't look much like a playoff team, or even always an OK team, at this time two, four, or six years ago either, and they all ended up making magic in different ways.
Smart money won't be on the Orioles pulling that caper off again this year, but if they did, that would be a lot of fun, and a surprisingly non-horrible starting rotation would be a big part of why.