The one thing that the Orioles needed to accomplish this offseason is to significantly improve on an MLB-worst starting rotation from 2017. With the four pitchers responsible for the worst of that performance all departing as free agents, spots were opened in the rotation while tens of millions of dollars cleared off of the payroll.
Despite this glaring need and the significant opportunity of roster and salary openings presented to them, the Orioles find themselves with a week to go until the start of spring training with two starting pitchers worth writing down in ink: Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy.
This is not breaking news. It has been glaringly obvious for at least six months that the Orioles were going to need to do something about the rotation to have much hope of competing in 2018. Yet at the beginning of the offseason, the Orioles didn’t seem to be serious about wanting to improve the rotation.
More than three months later, this story has not changed. A Sunday article by MASN’s Roch Kubatko once again related that Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb have been deemed “too expensive.” What’s more, the Orioles shopping list even among the apparent bargain bin has been impacted by “poor medicals” from other unnamed players.
In this same article, Kubatko relays an interest in Drew Hutchison, who was last in an MLB rotation in 2015 with the Blue Jays and comes along with a career ERA of 4.93 with a bit more than two full seasons worth of MLB innings. This is not exactly a thrilling name to hear in conjunction with the Orioles.
That’s not to say that considering Hutchison is a bad idea on its own. He had some success while spending all of last season with the Pirates Triple-A affiliate, allowing a 3.56 ERA with a 1.293 WHIP over 159.1 innings pitched. Triple-A is only Triple-A, but if the O’s are giving rotation shots to guys based on what they did in the minors last year, they could do worse.
Indeed, one need only look at the performance of the Orioles’ own Triple-A affiliate, the Norfolk Tides, to see that there were many worse pitchers in the high levels of the minors last year. This year-long struggle for Tides pitchers existed despite a general belief that the Tides home of Harbor Park is a more pitcher-friendly environment than anything.
Some of the players who were a part of that Norfolk failure, including Alec Asher, Chris Lee, and Gabriel Ynoa, exist on the periphery of the 2018 rotation competition until the Orioles sign someone to push them out of the picture.
It’s not like the Orioles just need to settle on a fifth starter. If that was the case, the idea of the current rotation competition might not seem so bad. They could run with whatever experiment turns out the best out of the trio of Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes, solid 2017 reliever Miguel Castro, and that group of wing-and-a-prayer guys. As of right now, the 2018 rotation will be running all of those experiments simultaneously.
If the Orioles ended up signing three pitchers and Hutchison was the most iffy of the three, that would be one thing. What makes the rumor linking the Orioles to him frustrating is a currently prevailing feeling that Hutchison, or a player of similar quality, could end up being the best, or even the only, starting pitcher that the Orioles pick off the free agent market this season.
With an MLB-wide slowdown on free agents this offseason, it’s not like the Orioles are the only team sitting on their hands. No one is signing. The big name pitchers like Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are unsigned. Big name hitters, or what passes for them in this market, like Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, haven’t signed. Lynn and Cobb haven’t signed. The cause of this is a matter of some debate. The effect is quite clear.
Perhaps the sheer number of available pitchers will give the Orioles a chance for their wait until February to find a bargain strategy to actually pay off.
While this isn’t the first time the Orioles have done this, the last two times they dragged out the pitching search for so long, what they ended up with was Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo. Those were disastrous signings that seemingly got worse every time the players actually pitched.
A bargain isn’t a bargain if it makes the team worse in the process. Each cost a draft pick and money that could have been better spent, all while clogging up a rotation spot and a roster spot. If the Orioles play this game again only to end up with Jason Vargas, Andrew Cashner, and/or Hutchison, that would not be encouraging - although at least that group of players won’t cost them a draft pick.
It could be that the free agents want too much money relative to what they’re expected to produce over their next contracts. Yet if Lynn or Cobb or whoever wants $18 million per year and the Orioles think they’re only worth $14 million - or only worth three years instead of four - they will get no prize for 2018 if they are right. They will just have an empty starting rotation in the last year before Manny Machado is a free agent.
This glaring reality must be apparent to the Orioles front office, or so I keep telling myself; maybe it’s only my going through one of the five stages of grief about the upcoming season. But all the same: They have to know that they have to do something, don’t they? They seem to have chosen not to trade Machado and anyone else with value. Therefore, they must seriously improve.
What sets apart the Orioles from the other teams trying to compete for 2018 is that they were bad in 2017 and they need to add from outside to get better. They can’t sit around and wait for whoever falls into their laps. Fortunately, the slowly-developing market means that the opportunity is still there for Duquette to pounce and improve the team.
Hopefully, the O’s get more serious about it than they have so far, or this summer doesn’t figure to be much more fun than the last one.