The Orioles offseason slumber has finally ended, even if it took until after the start of spring training for it to end. They have at last added a third starting pitcher, 31-year-old righty Andrew Cashner, most recently of the Rangers.
Presumably, Cashner will slot in as the third starter behind returning Orioles Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. Whatever your reaction to the Cashner signing might be in a vacuum, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it’s not enough. A rotation where Cashner is the third-best starter is probably still a bad rotation. Two mad scientist experiments remain behind him.
Even now that it’s down to two spots for the group of them, it’s hard to handicap the potential winner, and performance, of the pack that includes, apparently, Rule 5 picks Nestor Cortes and Jose Mesa Jr., 2017 reliever Miguel Castro, and last year’s Norfolk-Baltimore shuttle riders Gabriel Ynoa and Mike Wright.
What makes it hard to handicap is that it’s tough to imagine even the Orioles could be foolish to begin the season with two of those five pitchers in their starting rotation. Castro and the Rule 5 picks haven’t been used chiefly as starting pitchers and may not be able to handle the workload, whether or not they’re good enough to handle this at all.
Wright has failed in the MLB rotation across multiple seasons. Ynoa couldn’t even pitch well in Triple-A last year. The possibility exists for some kind of better performance that has yet to be unlocked, but a functioning organization doesn’t need to bet on that coming out of the gate to start the season.
Add to this the fact that Cashner is not as much of a sure bet as his 2017 ERA might trick you into believing. Superficially, he was better than fine in 2017, posting a 3.40 ERA in 166.2 innings over 28 starts. The Orioles would have given a lot to have someone with those numbers in their rotation over the past two seasons. They have been neither lucky nor good.
It may be that Cashner was lucky in 2017, which is why his being able to duplicate that performance should not be considered automatic. That luck is suggested in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .266, where in his career it has averaged .290.
If Cashner is due for BABIP regression, this is doubly concerning because his strikeout rate vanished in 2017, dipping from a 7.6 K/9 in 2016 to just a 4.6 K/9 last year. Add onto this an average-at-best walk rate since 2015 (3.5 BB/9 in 2017) as well as velocity that’s 1mph off from his best seasons and the recipe is there for some big problems.
As fellow Camden Chatter Chris Booze pointed out to me, no pitcher with 150+ innings in MLB had a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Cashner last year. He was worse in this regard than even miserable-to-watch former Oriole Wade Miley, the WHIP king. Sustaining a mid-3s ERA if that continues to be the case is not something that it’s good to have your favorite baseball team counting on.
All of that is to say that Cashner gives up a lot of balls in play. If more of them fall for hits, his already-high 1.320 WHIP will go up and his ERA will go up with it. Though Cashner’s 2017 was similar to his career with a lot of ground balls, it’s not clear how much of a plus that will be with the Orioles infield defense having the big question mark of Tim Beckham at third base.
Still, even with some regression, the rotation with Cashner in it is probably better than it was yesterday morning without him. This is clearing a low bar. That remains the big problem. Work still needs to be done.
If the Orioles sign Cashner and proclaim themselves set for the season, that’s not a plan. That’s madness. A lack of a further move would be unacceptable given that the Orioles are so far below where they were for payroll last season.
Counting Cashner’s money and excluding deferments, the Orioles are at about $140 million. Last Opening Day, they were at about $164 million. So it feels like, at the very least, the team “should” have another $25 million to put into the 2018 payroll. What, exactly, are they saving it for?
It may be that the team has been scraping the upper limit of what the Angelos family is willing to commit financially. Nonetheless, the Orioles can’t let off the gas pedal heading into the final season before the free agent apocalypse, where they have pointedly chosen to avoid trading their best player, Manny Machado. Whether they will admit it publicly or not, they must know this is the last hurrah.
To be fair, that apparent last hurrah complicates the picture. The Orioles may be willing to make a bit of a foolish bet on 2018 even if they know 2019 won’t be any good. The wisdom of this will be argued unless the Orioles performance decisively answers the question. It could be a bad plan, but it is at least a plan with some internal logic.
The uncertainty about the future makes it tougher to contemplate signing a second-tier pitcher like Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb. Without even getting into whether they’re “worth” what they’re asking based on expectations of their performance, does it do the Orioles any good to have $18 million committed to Lynn or Cobb in 2019 or 2020 when the team could be heading straight for the basement? My thoughts on this question have changed a dozen times this offseason.
This has always been a bad spot for the Orioles to be in. If you go into an offseason needing to sign at least two starting pitchers, in some ways you’ve already failed. Betting on free agents isn’t a good game to have to play. That’s why drafting and developing pitching prospects, and not trading them away for crummy outfielders, is important.
A series of past poor Dan Duquette decisions have left the Orioles here, though, so he has to find the way out of this hole. Signing Cashner has potential as a first step. Hopefully it’s not the only step, because even if it works out perfectly, it won’t be enough for this year, and after this year, several of the best players will be gone. I’m still waiting to see what’s next.