The Orioles starting rotation has undergone a bit of a metamorphosis since the beginning of September. When the O’s began the month out in Arizona, they featured a six-man rotation and the likes of Cole Irvin and Jack Flaherty were key contributors of that six-starter collective.
However, since the beginning of the month there’s been quite the shakeup. After getting the start September 1st versus the D’Backs, Irvin now finds himself part of the playoff-bound Norfolk Tides. Trade deadline acquisition Flaherty is now in the bullpen after continuing to struggle as a starter. Meanwhile, former ace John Means has risen from the ashes like a phoenix with a newly repaired UCL, cementing himself as a key part of the rotation as we approach October.
For much of the season the overall depth of this rotation has been a point of concern for members of Birdland. After all, this group of Orioles starters was hardly seen as the second coming of Palmer, McNally, Dobson and Cuellar. Even with the injury to Félix Bautista weakening the bullpen, observers still pointed to this rotation as the biggest question facing the Orioles—all while they barrelled toward the playoffs like a Bautista fastball.
With October less than a week away, all of that questioning has received an answer. Kyle Bradish has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s up to the task of being the Orioles Game 1 starter in the postseason. In 12 starts since the All-Star break, the second-year right-hander has a 2.65 ERA, a .199 batting average against and has limited opponents to a measly .578 OPS. Bradish has been the model of consistency over the second half, with quality starts in nine of those 12 outings. He’s also consistently put the Orioles in position to win, as the O’s are 8-4 in Bradish starts since the break.
Perhaps the more surprising answer to Baltimore’s starting pitcher conundrum is the excellent stretch shown by rookie Grayson Rodriguez. The flame-throwing, 23-year-old right-hander has nearly matched Bradish step for step since his return from Norfolk. In his last 12 outings, Rodriguez has a nearly-identical ERA to Bradish at 2.66. He’s similarly stifling opposing hitters to the tune of a .223 BAA and .589 opponent OPS. Rodriguez hasn’t been as consistent in terms of quality starts (7 out of 12) or in delivering victories (O’s are 6-6 in those 12 starts), but he’s certainly instilled a level of confidence well beyond his level of experience.
With John Means coming back and showing the All-Star level form we saw from him in 2019 and 2021, the Orioles can feel confident that they have three high-level starters to hand the ball to in the postseason. As of late, that’s more than you can say about most of the other AL contenders.
Of the teams the Orioles could run into in a potential ALDS matchup—namely Tampa Bay, Texas, Toronto, Houston or Seattle—none of their projected playoff rotations are lighting the world on fire lately. Of the top four starters on each of those teams, only Texas’ Jordan Montgomery has an ERA below three in August and September. In that same time frame, the rest of the Texas staff have ERAs around 5.00. In Houston, All-Star Framber Valdez and future Hall-of-Famer Justin Verlander have been good the last two months, but still well below the level of Bradish, Rodriguez and Means. The Astros also have the headache of picking between the struggling Cristian Javier, J.P. France and Hunter Brown to round out their rotation.
The leading contenders for second best trio—after the O’s—come out of the Pacific Northwest and North of the Border. The Seattle trio of George Kirby, Logan Gilbert and Luis Castillo have been more good than truly dominant in these final two months—and the Mariners currently find themselves just outside the last Wild Card spot. In Toronto, Chris Bassitt, Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi all have ERAs under 4.00 since the start of August. However, it’s hard to put stock in that trio matching up well against the Orioles given how badly the Blue Jays struggled against Baltimore this year.
Tampa, meanwhile, has gotten bigger contributions from the less heralded members of their rotation. After Montgomery, the Rays’ Zack Eflin is the next closest thing to Bradish, Rodriguez and Means in terms of his combination of ERA and opponent OPS. The bigger names like Tyler Glasnow and deadline acquisition Aaron Civale are both in the midst of a rough patch for Tampa, and currently the Rays’ rotation is relying more and more on 27-year-old journeyman Zack Littell.
It’s worth noting that the Rangers and Rays are missing big names like Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Shane McClanahan from their group of starters. With those stars out of the picture, almost all of the AL’s contenders only have 2-3 pitchers you feel confident can absolutely win them a playoff game. The remaining starters—at least based on current form—all feel like a roll of the dice when their teams send them to the mound.
So if the Orioles can get above average play out of their fourth starter, their rotation goes from slightly ahead of the rest to the most dangerous one in the AL. The up-and-down duo of Dean Kremer and Kyle Gibson are the two vying to fill the final spot in the postseason rotation. On the surface, this seems like a good problem to have for the once starter-strapped O’s. Both Kremer and Gibson have shown sustained periods of success over the last several months.
For Kremer, he was excellent across July and August, posting numbers—like his 2.90 ERA, .203 BAA and .592 OPS—that rivaled those of Bradish and Rodriguez. September has been a different story for the 27-year-old who is affectionately described as a “constant tinkerer” on the mound. Over his last four starts, Kremer is sporting a 4.67 ERA while opponents are hitting .278 against him. That tinkering doesn’t seem to be paying off as his most recent outing in Cleveland was particularly bad. In that loss to the Guardians, Kremer allowed seven hits and six runs (three earned) over 3.1 innings.
Gibson, meanwhile, has recently found his groove after a rough start to his second half. The 11th-year veteran struggled majorly in his first nine starts after the All-Star break, to the tune of a 6.28 ERA and .297 BAA. After watching Gibby give up five runs to the Marlins, seven runs to the White Sox and nine runs to the Mariners, plenty of members of Birdland wondered if he also deserved a move to the bullpen. After July and August, it was hard to find people who wanted the Orioles veteran leader to be part of the October rotation.
September Gibby has been a completely different pitcher, though. Through four starts this month, Gibson’s ground ball rates are up, the hard hit rates are way down and all of that’s translated into him being a significantly more effective pitcher. The pitching staff’s most-veteran presence has a September ERA of 2.96 to go along with a BAA of .229. This Gibson looks more like the pitcher the Orioles had in mind when they signed him to a $10M deal—and one who could definitely make a difference in the postseason.
Both Kremer and Gibson will get the ball one more time in the final regular season series against Boston. If one can distinguish himself against the Red Sox, he’d become the betting favorite to take the fourth rotation spot in the postseason. Perhaps Gibson’s postseason experience and superior September gives him a slight edge over Kremer currently, but it also feels like Kremer has a higher upside than his more veteran counterpart.
The bottom line is this, though: the narrative surrounding the O’s lately is how much more important it is for them to win the AL East—that way they can set up their “thin” rotation for the ALDS. In reality it’s a much different story. All signs point to the fact that Bradish, Rodriguez and Means can all go toe-to-toe with any starter in the AL. If Kremer and/or Gibson can pitch up to their best, the Orioles have the starting pitching that can carry them to a World Series.
Who should be the Orioles fourth starter in the playoffs?
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Neither, go with a three-man rotation