The Orioles' Rotation: Reunited With Respectability

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Joe Saunders pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The Orioles have been a surprising story this season. Even more surprising is that they've been winning without a stable rotation, but It looks like stability might be on its way.

The Orioles were supposed to be about their young pitching, once upon a time. Entering the 2011 season, they had four promising young pitchers in the rotation. With four young pitchers, I'd guess a team should realistically hope for one successful season, one promising season, a guy who doesn't embarrass himself, and a lost season. Instead, the Orioles got a couple of pitchers who didn't embarrass themselves, and that's being generous.

Somehow the Orioles went from that (and 93 losses, mind you) to contenders in the AL East. If presented with that scenario before the season, you would have figured one or both of the following would have happened:

  • Matt Wieters was in the middle of an MVP season
  • Tsuyoshi Wada was some kind of undiscovered international superstar
  • All of that young pitching finally panned out.

Maybe even just some of that young pitching would have been a good answer. But none of the above were correct.. Turns out the correct answer was Wei-Yin Chen. Wei-Yin Chen. Though we would have also accepted "Jason Hammel", or possibly "faerie wings and drugs."

The young pitchers have been almost worse as a group this year. Brian Matusz isn't nearly as bad as he was in 2012, but he's in the bullpen now after another sojourn through the minors. Jake Arrieta has bounced back and forth from the minors, as has Zach Britton, who was also injured for a good part of the year. The addition of Tommy Hunter certainly isn't helping anyone.The rotation was something of a mess, certainly relative to what they were expecting fro their young alert. .

Yet the Orioles keep winning.

The Orioles probably would have bargained away the rights to the rest of their young pitchers just to get one who could help them this year. Any of the names up there … just one. For the first four months of the year, the answer was clear: Nope. The Orioles have tried 10 different starters. They've received decent fill-in work from rookies Miguel Gonzalez and Steve Johnson, and that's about the extent of the good news.

The thing is, they're close to having a normal rotation. Even when the Orioles were winning early and often, they never had a group of five acceptable-to-decent starters. Chen has been steady, everything else has been a scramble. But now the O's are close to looking normal, and it took three steps.

1. Getting Jason Hammel back
Hammel could have been an All-Star in the first half of the season, but he needed knee surgery in July. He's making a rehab start on Saturday, and he could rejoin the rotation next week.

2. Quality dumpster diving
Somehow Joe Saunders when from one of the most overrated starting pitchers in baseball to one of the most underrated. He's thrown 200 innings of average baseball in each of the last two seasons. In the movie Alive, survivors of a plane crash find the luggage compartment of their plane after going hungry for months. One of the survivors opens up the first suitcase he sees, pulls out a tube of toothpaste, and squirts several ounces of it into his mouth at once as he exults to the heavens.

That's average starting pitching to the Baltimore Orioles right now. They were desperate for stability behind Chen. Saunders, acquired in a waiver trade with the Diamondbacks, will help.

Randy Wolf is also rumored to be joining the Orioles shortly, and that's also a good pickup, albeit a bit less certain. The only things different between Wolf's year in 2012 and his previous two with the Brewers are a) his batting average on balls in play is .340, which is the third-highest in the majors this year, and b) his strand rate is one of the lowest in the NL. His walk rate is the same, as is his strikeout rate and velocity. His xFIP is actually the lowest it's been in the last three years.

Which isn't to guarantee that Wolf has been merely unlucky instead of bad. But it's a gamble worth taking.

3. Finally, finally, finally getting some young pitching to help out
Finally. Chris Tillman started the season in Triple-A, where the 24-year-old had a 9.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio. Since his recall, he's between quite good:

2012 7 2 3.26 58.0 7 19 47

Out of the ashes of the young starting pitching, a seedling emerges.

Now the Orioles will have to do some mixing and matching. Johnson and Gonzalez probably haven't pitched their way out of the rotation, but Saunders and Wolf are likely better bets to be useful for the next month. Tillman offers an upside that few others on the Orioles staff can, and Chen and (eventually) Hammel are obviously going to stick around.

It took a while. It took some improved health, some shrewd moves, and a little luck, but the Orioles finally have a rotation that could qualify as normal. It happened at a pretty fortuitous time.

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