The Baltimore Orioles are more than hanging around at the mid-point, as they lead the wild-card race in the American League, but there are signs that things are beginning to unravel. The starting pitching is a mess: As Rob Neyer pointed out, the Orioles demoted Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, and Jake Arrieta, leaving the rotation in the hands of the likes of Dana Eveland, Miguel Gonzalez, and the hopes and dreams associated with every Chris Tillman recall there's ever been.
If the Orioles want to patch things up and continue to stick around the playoff race, they're going to need an upgrade in the rotation.
Right now, Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, both acquired this off-season, are the only stable pieces in place in what has quickly become Rotation Jenga. Hammel has stayed relatively healthy, and he's the only well-above-average Baltimore starter: 119 ERA+ over 106 innings and 17 starts, and his 3.27 fielding-independent pitching rating proves he deserves those numbers. Chen has been a little worse for wear as of late, giving up 13 runs in his last 17 innings, a three-start stretch, but he's still the owner of a better-than-average ERA+, and he's made his 17 turns in the rotation.
The pitcher currently in the rotation with the next-most starts in 2012 is Dana Eveland, who has a grand total of two. Eveland has bounced between the majors and minors since 2005, and he's had little success while pitching in the former. His career ERA is 5.40, and his K/BB is an even uglier 1.3. He rarely misses bats, but does induce grounders around half of the time -- that's about the only positive going here. His work out of the bullpen was solid for the O's, but at this point it's safe to say he's likely stretched as a starter.
Miguel Gonzalez is 28 years old, and his only major-league playing time has come in his 18 innings in 2012. He's been around for six years in the minors, and has good, not great numbers, though they've (unsurprisingly) improved with age. He didn't even reach Triple-A until he was 27, but acquitted himself well there both last season and in this one, and the O's gave him a shot. He might turn out to be a halfway-decent answer, in the same surprising way the unknown Jose Quintana has been for the White Sox, but you can't always bet on that sort of thing panning out. Especially not in tandem with the other question marks in the rotation.
Last is Chris Tillman, who is a complete mystery to us all. He's been bounced between the majors and minors repeatedly due to an inability to succeed at the big-league level, but in his first start back in 2012, he threw eight frames, struck out seven against a pair of free passes, and allowed no earned runs. Your normal caveats apply: it was one start, it was the Mariners, it's Chris Tillman. But Tillman is still only 24, and the big right-hander has shown so many flashes in the minors that it's tough to give up on him entirely. Like with Gonzalez, though, he's more lottery ticket than guaranteed solution at this point, and the O's need one more insurance policy in the season's last two months.
There's likely to be plenty of pitching available at the July 31 deadline, as the Brewers are concerned they won't be able to re-sign Zack Greinke, the Phillies are looking for a huge package in return for Cole Hamels, and the Cubs want to move Matt Garza for the kind of prospect package they gave up for him in the first place. The Orioles have the prospects to get those kinds of arms, if they so desired, but it's unlikely they want to use them as trade chips. Top prospects like Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy are an integral part of the future of the O's, and as important as is it to get back into contention in 2012, it's more important to secure the future of an organization that's had little to look forward to for years.
That leaves the Orioles picking among the rest of the crop, browsing in what should be, at least relatively speaking, the bargain bin. Someone like Wandy Rodriguez, who the Astros owe another at least another $15.5 million to after 2012, could likely be had if Baltimore is willing to pay his salary and give up non-elite prospects. Rodriguez might not be an ace, but the Orioles don't necessarily need that. They need an arm capable of stabilizing a rotation that's in flux, one who can give them the chance to try to test out Tillman and Gonzalez as back-end starters, and one who, if things do go well, would give them a shot in a short October series.
Rodriguez can be those things. His strikeouts are down, but so are his walks -- his current K/B is the second-best of his eight-year career. His 119 ERA+ is in line with the 118 collective showing since 2008. He's not necessarily a huge difference maker on his own at this stage, but he's far more dependable than the likes of what Baltimore already has.
His 2014 option for $13 million becomes a player option if he's dealt, but the Orioles can likely come out on top here regardless. Either an organization with money to spend and a need of pitchers gets Wandy Rodriguez for $13 million, or Wandy opts out and walks away, leaving the Orioles able to spend elsewhere. Since Rodriguez wouldn't be on the Orioles for all of 2012, Baltimore couldn't extend a qualifying offer if he doesn't exercise his option to stay, but that would also likely be factored into the price they pay for him.
If not Wandy, there are others of his ilk around, like Ryan Dempster, who is owed the rest of his $14 million deal for 2012. While he's been fantastic in 2012, he's very unlikely to pull in the kind of package that his teammate Matt Garza will, given he's a rental with no draft picks attached to him. This isn't to say he'll be cheap, but if the Orioles want to both compete in the present while maintaining their future, this is the kind of pitcher they might be able to reel in.
The Orioles need someone. Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz have proven hard to rely on, and the current back-end crop is a hard sell, too. Baltimore could get away with having a poor rotation thanks to their offense, but in a league as tough as the AL, it's hard to bet on them sticking around without some kind of rotation upgrade.