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With eight days to Opening Day, the Orioles finally have a starting rotation

Alex Cobb is a great addition to the middle of the rotation, but what else must go right for the Baltimore Orioles to contend in 2018?

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at St. Louis Cardinals Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long winter. Thankfully, in eight days games that count will start and the first pitch will come from a Baltimore Oriole on the mound at Camden Yards to a batter for the Minnesota Twins. Eight also happens to be Cal Ripken Jr.’s number, which should bring back good memories for Orioles fans.

Plenty of roster shuffling and planning will dominate the next few days in Sarasota before the trip north. The club needs to get down to 25 players and Mark Trumbo’s injury, as well as the signing of Alex Cobb, provides added possibilities and options. In that spirit and looking ahead some, let’s analyze a handful broader themes that will play a big part in the success, or failure, of the 2018 Birds.

It is not surprising that the difference between post-season contention – wouldn’t that be nice (and it would continue the trend of 2012, 2014, 2016…2018?) – and a fire sale of expiring contracts (Machado, Jones, Brach, Britton) – that would be a horrible outcome to the season – will come down to pitching, more pitching, offense, defense and leadership. It’s not a complicated game.

Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman

The time is now for these two. Dylan Bundy – a first rounder in 2011 – and Kevin Gausman – a first rounder in 2012 – both picked fourth overall, need to step up and become legitimate top of the rotation starters. Perhaps there is no bigger factor to success for the Orioles than the development of these two pitchers.

Each has shown flashes of dominance at different times, but neither has consistently delivered wins, quality starts and really got it done 30 plus times over a complete season. Slightly better than average, which is what they’ve been in recent years, isn’t good enough anymore.

Competing in the American League East, making the post-season and advancing to the ALCS and World Series, requires at least two excellent, top-tier starting pitchers. For the O’s, those pitchers need to be Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Hopefully this is the year where they can take that step forward.

Bottom of the rotation

Alongside the development of Bundy and Gausman, whoever ends up filling out the bottom part of the rotation – and regardless of who is on the Opening Day roster, over time it will likely include Miguel Castro, Chris Tillman, Mike Wright as well as others – must pitch at a mediocre level, at worst.

There is no way the 2018 team can win if the results are similar to last year where Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley and Tillman combined for an ERA of 6.75 over 76 games started and 87 total appearances. That group of season long performances was abysmal. Channeling Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden, the back of the rotation for the Orioles this year needs to not suck. They don’t need to be the next Cy Young, but ERA’s below 5.00 would be nice and a step in the right direction.

If Bundy and Gausman are very good to great, and the latter part of the rotation is mediocre, the Orioles will be in the mix for the AL East or a Wild Card.

Speaking of pitching, the middle just got better too

Related to the above thoughts on the front and back of the rotation, the middle of the O’s staff has improved significantly in recent weeks. The Orioles need quality starters to compliment a very good back end of the bullpen and offense and despite the doubters, they’ve made significant progress. Furthering this point, yesterday’s signing of Alex Cobb was a great move. He’s going to look great in orange and black anchoring the middle of the rotation along with Andrew Cashner.

Cobb is 30 years old and did miss all of 2015 and part of 2016 with Tommy John surgery, which is the kind of thing that makes O’s management extra uneasy. However, he showed in 2017 the arm troubles are behind him by starting 29 games and posting a 3.66 ERA. Since 2011, he has pitched exclusively in the AL East for Tampa Bay with an ERA of 3.50 over 115 games started.

Assuming Cobb passes his physical and the deal is inked, the O’s should really feel good about the state of their rotation. Two months ago, who would have thought that was possible? (1) Bundy — (2) Gausman — (3) Cobb — (4) Cashner — (5) Tillman is nothing to be ashamed of.

Count on the runs; come back defense

One way or another, the runs will be there. There is no doubt that between the players the Orioles have continuing to be good or having bounce back years, new additions, and playing at Camden Yards, Baltimore will score enough runs to win games.

A quick scan of the spring training offensive numbers through Tuesday shows several usual suspects, and some new suspects, primed for big seasons with the bat. Manny Machado (18 hits) and Jonathan Schoop (16 hits) are hitting over .400. Chance Sisco (11 hits), Alex Presley (13 hits), Antony Santander (17 hits) and Adam Jones (11 hits) are each hitting over .300. Tim Beckham (14 hits) and Trey Mancini (12 hits) are over .250.

As a team through 26 spring games, the Birds are in the top third of nearly every offensive category, including, runs, hits, home runs, RBI and batting average. Yes, it is only spring training, but offense is not going to be a problem.

Returning their defensive performance to 2016 levels, as opposed to 2017 where it wasn’t good, will help too and be the bigger challenge. This is true particularly with Tim Beckham moving to third, the departure of JJ Hardy, and Joey Rickard – a very good defender – starting the season in the minors. Bad defense isn’t part of the “Oriole Way” and the team needs to make sure that part of their game improves.

Inexperienced skippers

The talent of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox is obvious. On paper, they are the best teams in the American League East. However, overlooked in a lot of analysis is that in 2017 both teams had well documented clubhouse and chemistry issues leading to the dismissal of Joe Girardi and John Farrell. Both Girardi and Farrell were slated to be replaced no matter how far their teams went in the playoffs.

Taking their place are two rookie managers – Aaron Boone and Alex Cora. Neither has managed a big-league game. No one knows how they’ll perform or how players will take to their styles and tactics.

Opening Day 2018 will be Buck Showalter’s 2,908 game at the helm of a team and the start of his eighth full season in Baltimore. Obviously, winning takes talent. But, a good manager is incredibly important too over the course of a 162-game grind. Clubhouse issues have not been part of the Showalter era. When looking at the in-division manager competition, I like our guy. By a mile.

What are your thoughts on these and other 2018 success factors for the Orioles? Do you think they can right the ship from last year and contend? Was the Alex Cobb signing a good move for the team?