Maybe you could hear some snickering around the league. The Orioles certainly set themselves up for a punchline.
“Hey, Orioles! If this were 2013, you’d have a pretty good pitching staff!”
Those are the jabs you should expect to endure when you sign Felix Hernandez, who hasn’t been good for a while, and Matt Harvey, who hasn’t been good for even more of a while, to contracts. It sure looks like you’re bringing aboard two washed-up has-beens, a pair of guys who after landing in Florida for spring training should tell the pilot to hold the plane, in case their latest comeback attempt lasts all of five minutes.
It certainly isn’t an unusual move around these parts. The Orioles have long had an affinity for the “Hey, remember this guy? He used to be good!” acquisition. There was Pat Hentgen, a former Cy Young winner, in 2001. There was Sammy Sosa in 2005. There was Kevin Millwood in 2010, Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada that same year, then Derrek Lee in 2011, Johan Santana in 2014, there have been a few.
There’s a key difference, however. With most of those names, the Orioles were betting on those players bouncing back. Now, the Orioles are risking nothing, and if there is some reward to these moves, well then, that’s great.
At least, that’s what we hope is the case.
Lottery ticket moves like these, either taking a flyer on a declining veteran re-discovering his form or a younger player tapping into some long-awaited potential, are good for teams in the Orioles’ position. If luck strikes and the O’s get flashes of King Felix or the Dark Knight, then for really no commitment they get pitchers who can either help the team out in a big way in the present, or in the future in the form of a trade. When you’re rebuilding, lightning in a bottle is what you’re looking for.
Provided, of course, you’re not relying on it. And that’s where the Orioles need to keep in mind what they got.
With those other moves, the Millwoods and the Lees, the problem was that those players were brought in to fulfill roles they could no longer fit. Millwood was acquired to anchor the rotation, and went 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA. Lee was acquired to be a middle-of-the-order bat and hit .246 with a .706 OPS. Same with Sosa, same with Atkins. So when they sputtered and struggled, there was no “ah, well, it was worth a shot” feeling to it. The Orioles were counting on them being more.
Contrast that with the Santana signing. The Orioles had their rotation pretty much figured out, but a former Cy Young winner was floating on the market, so...why not? Bring him in, and if all he needs is for his bad luck to subside a bit, then great. A good team gets better. If he’s finished, then no worries. And when Santana proved unable to even get out of camp, it didn’t even make a ripple in the organization.
That’s how it needs to be with these reclamation projects. And with the Orioles right now, a thin pitching staff makes it less clear that that’s how it will be with Hernandez and Harvey, with Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun suggesting that the Birds are wagering that they can revive one or both hurlers.
“The Orioles will have signed (Harvey) with the idea that they can get the most out of him, and same goes for Hernández and (Wade) LeBlanc,” Meoli wrote. “The Orioles wouldn’t be using three of their limited camp spots this spring on these kinds of pitchers if they didn’t think they needed them.”
The fact that both were signed to minor-league deals takes care of that issue from the financial side, but as Meoli pointed out, the Orioles have a documented need for pitching depth in the rotation. Right now, it’s John Means, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and...Jorge Lopez? Wade LeBlanc, 36 years old and coming off of a season (granted, small sample size) with an 8.06 ERA? A prospect like Michael Baumann or Zac Lowther who has a high ceiling, but might not be ready and could be at risk of a confidence blow if brought up too soon?
There aren’t many spot starters in store, and the Orioles need to make sure they’re in a position to take it in stride if Hernandez or Harvey, who will get their crack at the rotation and rightfully so, can’t still get the job done in the major leagues. They need to make sure, no matter what happens with those two, they’re not left wondering “Wait, what now?”
It would be less of a concern if Harvey and Hernandez had seen their performance decline, but were still good bets to take the ball every fifth day. Harvey has pitched a grand total of 71.1 major league innings over the last two seasons. Hernandez has been much less of an injury concern over his career, but he also has question marks surrounding his durability since it will be two years since he last pitched and went 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA.
Would it surprise anyone if the Harvey and Hernandez experiment fizzles in Sarasota? The more depth the Orioles have, the more they’ll be ready for that.
Provided Baltimore can flesh out its rotation with reliable, if unspectacular, pitching, then the need for Hernandez and Harvey to return to their once-stellar form diminishes. The team can go back to the ideal scenario of hoping, but not needing, for the longshot to pay off.
The Orioles made the right move taking a shot with Matt Harvey and Felix Hernandez. They just need to make sure it’s a shot, and not the plan.