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The Orioles rotation is improved but remains in need of an upgrade

While the lineup and bullpen thrive, Baltimore’s starters are holding back a team with playoff aspirations

Baltimore Orioles v Texas Rangers Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

The Orioles have surged in the season’s first month-and-a-half thanks to an offense capable of scoring in all sorts of ways and a bullpen with a Rolodex of reliable names Brandon Hyde can count on. But if this team is going to continue on its current trajectory and make noise in the playoffs then their rotation will need some tweaking.

Far from the disaster that the team’s starters have been in recent seasons, the 2023 Orioles rotation is still below-average in just about every statistical category. As a unit, they are 21st in ERA (4.81), 20th in FIP (4.71), 21st in innings pitched (207.2), and 19th in K/9 (7.93).

This is a development that won’t surprise many. Kyle Gibson, brought on to provide length and durability, has lived up to his billing but not much more. Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer have both fought through inconsistency early on. And Grayson Rodriguez is a rookie with oodles of talent that is naturally going to oscillate between good and bad as he figures out the league.

Tyler Wells has been the standout with his 2.68 ERA over 47 innings. His most recent outing on Saturday against the Pirates (seven innings, no runs, one hit, two walks, eight strikeouts) may be the best any Orioles’ starting pitcher has looked this season. Hopefully he can continue to deny some of his peripherals (.145 BABIP, 88.2% left-on-base, 2.68 ERA vs. 4.49 FIP). But even if he does, it’s reasonable to be a little worried for him as he’s nearly halfway to the 103.2 innings he threw all last season when shoulder and oblique injuries shortened his campaign.

Wells is far from the problem, of course. If you asked the Orioles to form a playoff rotation right now, the former Rule 5 pick would be the first pitcher listed, and Hyde might even hand him the ball in Game 1. It’s the rest of the crew that’s in need of a contender-worthy upgrade.

The organization does have several internal options that may provide some help. Chief among them are Cole Irvin and DL Hall.

Irvin, arriving via a trade with the Athletics during the offseason, made the O’s Opening Day roster, but struggled so mightily that he was demoted to Triple-A in mid-April. The results have been better in Norfolk (3.19 ERA, 1.16 walks per nine innings). However, he has also stopped getting strikeouts, sitting down just 4.94 per nine on three strikes, and owns a 5.20 xFIP at the level. Perhaps he has put himself into a position to earn a recall as an injury replacement, but those aren’t the numbers of a true rotation upgrade.

Hall looks like his same old self, loading up on strikeouts (12.18 K/9), but struggling with walks (4.61 BB/9). However, his most recent start was a good one: six innings, two runs, four hits, one walk, nine strikeouts. The Orioles are going to try and make him a starter until they cannot stand it.

The eventual return of John Means, which is expected no earlier than July, may be the literal ace up the Orioles’ sleeve. He’s been the club’s best starter since 2019, and if he looks anything like the 2021 version of himself then he immediately becomes one of the team’s top arms without question. But as of now his return timeline is not entirely settled, and while the science behind Tommy John recovery has improved by leaps and bounds there will always be some concern until it actually happens without issue.

On a full strength Orioles squad, the four top starting pitchers—based on a combination of talent, on-field performance, and veteran experience—are probably Means, Gibson, Wells, and Rodriguez. Is that enough to go toe-to-toe in a postseason series? Maybe, but at least one more established starter would make things feel a lot better.

It’s honestly too early to think about trade deadline acquisitions. A lot can happen in the next two months to sink or save a team’s season. But that doesn’t make for a very fun blog topic, so let’s take a quick look at some notable starters that could be on the block in July.

The White Sox are a disaster. Lucas Giolito is a free agent after the year, which could lower his price in a trade. But he has also bounced back from a poor 2022 to look like himself this year: 3.86 ERA, 9.39 K/9, slight uptick on his fastball. His teammate Dylan Cease has two more years of team control beyond this season, and could therefore be a lot more expensive. He may need to see his performance rebound (4.86 ERA, 4.27 BB/9) for the Orioles or other teams agree to part with top-tier prospects in return.

Maybe a deal for Tigers lefty (and former Orioles prospect) Eduardo Rodriguez could make some sense. He has been sensational (1.57 ERA) for the lagging Tigers, and he has an opt out after this season. Given his current level of performance, that is almost a guarantee he will opt out, and it could make the potential trade package slightly lower for a quality arm.

The Orioles and Marlins have long been discussed as potential trade partners given the former’s glut of hitting prospects and the latter’s plethora of pitchers. Jesús Luzardo is living up to his talent down in Miami (3.38 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 24.6% strikeout rate) and has multiple years of team control remaining, so any deal involving him could be expensive. But there is no question he would be an upgrade.

The Orioles’ needs exist at the top of the market. They don’t need more innings eaters or backend options. That have that covered internally with several of the names mentioned here, plus guys like Bruce Zimmermann, Spenser Watkins, and even recent call-up Drew Rom. Depth is not a problem for this team. But it’s not always easy to find those top-of-the-rotation talents, and when you do it tends to cost quite a bit.

It’s been clear for a long time, but as we inch towards July and the Orioles continue to win games it becomes undeniable that the team will have to part with some of their coveted youngsters for a difference-maker in Baltimore.