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Orioles positional preview: Starting rotation

The Orioles will begin the year with less than five starting pitchers. Their use of an opener may stem from necessity, but at least it provides an interesting storyline.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles will enter the 2019 season on death row. There’s no execution date set, but a verdict has been reached and the team has been sentenced. At some point this year, Baltimore will be eliminated from the playoffs. It’s only a matter of time.

Is this a little dark? Absolutely. But there are very few rainbows in Rock Bottom, Maryland. So much for optimism on Opening Day.

Sure, there’s some hope sprinkled into the Orioles somber future. Hidden amongst the place holders are a few players worth getting excited about. There’s the Rule-5 guys Richie Martin and Drew Jackson in the infield, Richard Bleier out in the bullpen and a few prospects to keep an eye on down in the farm. But the Orioles starting rotation? Expectations have never been lower.

Nothing better epitomizes the organization’s apathy for winning this year than the club’s current rotation. The Orioles entered the offseason with three Major League quality starting pitchers, and they’ll begin this year with two.

Alex Cobb, who was briefly tabbed the Orioles’ Opening Day starter, will begin the year on the injured list. Cobb will be absent on Opening Day for the second consecutive year after signing with the Birds late last March. The Orioles gave the righty time to get into game shape before he debuted on April 14. Cobb allowed eight runs in less than four innings that day, and showed he was far from midseason form.

Cobb struggled tremendously throughout the first half before flashing potential in July. He finally took the form of a player worth 4 years/$57 million in August by pitching to a 2.66 ERA in six starts. Both Cobb and the club hope the 31-year-old can get off to a quicker start this season. His groin injury does not appear to be serious, and Cobb could return soon enough to start the Orioles home opener April 4.

With Cobb sidelined, skipper Brandon Hyde shifted the honor of Opening Day starter to Andrew Cashner. Cashner made 28 starts last season, his most since 2015, and tallied a 5.29 ERA in 153 innings. He finished a whopping 4-15 with a 1.582 WHIP. Not exactly staff ace material.

If you were hoping Cashner put up better numbers this spring, prepare to be let down. In 15.1 innings across six starts, he allowed 10 runs on 17 hits. He struck out 14, walked four and allowed three home runs. Still, Cashner is one of the few veterans on the club and he’ll take the ball every fifth day. The best case for the Conroe, Texas, native is a clean bill of health, a hearty plate of innings and maybe a hint of trade value come July.

The Orioles said farewell to Kevin Gausman last year, but fellow top prospect Dylan Bundy is back and still in search of the consistency that has eluded him. Bundy’s career numbers could not be more pedestrian: 31-31 with a 4.63 ERA. That’s not terrible for an AL East pitcher, but the Orioles once had much higher hopes. There’s hope that Bundy will benefit from the new presence of analytics in the clubhouse, and there’s a chance he breaks out as the Birds best pitcher.

After that, things get a lot cloudier. As Mark Brown wrote yesterday, the Orioles will use an opener early this season. Nate Karns, a former starter who missed all of 2018, will open the second game of the season for the Orioles. The Orioles had hoped Karns could serve as a traditional starter, but he was thrust into the bullpen due to a spring injury. Opening games will allow Karns to stretch his arm out, and his role will expand if he pitches well and stays healthy.

Mike Wright Jr. is back in the picture, as difficult as that may be to believe. Whether it’s out of curiosity or pure necessity, the new administration will take their own look at Wright and see what he brings to the table. It’s possible Wright benefits from the fresh faces around him. There’s always a chance.

David Hess was a mainstay in the rotation during the second half of last year, and he hasn’t done anything to forfeit the spot. As long as no one comes to take it, he may slot in as the fifth starter or an opener. His stuff is hardly overwhelming, but he has the ability to be a fifth starter with some additional consistency.

The Orioles do not have a left handed pitcher in the rotation, but that hardly matters for a team that’s rebuilding. It’s not like they’ll be matching up for a playoff series. Still, it never hurts to have a lefty in the mix, and that could help John Means at some point. Means is set to make the 25-man roster.

Nick Cicere broke down the state of the bullpen Tuesday. Several pitchers that start in the bullpen, like Means, Jimmy Yacabonis and Miguel Castro, could earn starts at some point. Cicere notes that Yacabonis has the stuff to pitch at the big league level, and points out that Castro is only 24 years old. Both have the potential for a breakout year if things break their way.

The Orioles are going to lose a lot of games this year, and someone must be credited with each loss. Alex Cobb could pitch to his potential, and there’s a chance Bundy finally takes a step forward. The most intriguing storyline will likely be whether the Orioles stick with the opener, or if they only use it out of necessity.

Will any of these guys start for the next winning Orioles team? It’s difficult to tell. The Orioles could have added a veteran starter or two this offseason, but it’s too late for that now. Someone will be on the mound every game, and that’s good enough for right now.