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The Baltimore Orioles will need a strong rotation to make the playoffs, but it's not a given they have the makings of one with this group
The Orioles were in something of a tough position at the start of the off-season. Two of their five rotation spots were filled with obvious candidates Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore's most consistent, realistic performers from 2012. The other three were more wide-open, but not for a lack of options: as of this writing, there are six pitchers on the Orioles' depth chart vying for the last three rotation spots. The problem is that finding three reliable arms from the group isn't an automatic.
That's where the tough position for general manager Dan Duquette comes in. The Yankees, who won the division in 2012, might be a little worse, but there's a very real chance that the Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays are all better than they were, and that all are good enough to fight for a wild card. That's without getting into the Angels' huge winter, or the Rangers still being talented enough to contend, or, as futile as their efforts might be, the busy winters of the Royals and Indians. That puts extra significance on the decision to spend (or not to spend) now.
Baltimore, maybe sensing some of last year's luck meant they were building on something besides a playoff-caliber roster, decided to roll with the options on hand rather than hand out money and draft picks to keep up in the short-term. Now, this is likely a road that will lead to a worse season, but there are other goals it will accomplish. Many of the pitchers the O's are going to throw at the wall in hopes of sticking are young, or young-ish, at least, with things to prove. Separating the proverbial wheat from the future big-league relievers is something Baltimore needs to do, so they get a sense of just how much pitching help they really do need in their both short- and long-term future.
So, just who of this non-Dylan Bundy group can be expected to contribute to the O's and help them in the now and maybe later? Starting with the pitchers listed at MLB Depth Charts:
Chris Tillman: Despite the fact this four-year veteran has fewer than 100 quality innings in the majors, he might be the best bet of the bunch to produce in 2013. Tillman is still just 25 years old, and not that long ago was a top-25 prospect according to Baseball America. He's struggled with consistency, though, in part due to velocity problems, command issues, and the inability to develop a reliable pitch beyond his heater. The velocity shot back up to the levels of his prospect days this past year, though, and while his command isn't perfect, his control was promising. Don't expect another sub-three ERA from the right-hander, but a league-average, mid-rotation season is in the cards, and would be welcomed by the O's.
Miguel Gonzalez: It's easy to want to believe in Gonzalez, as he was a 28-year-old rookie who was as unexpectedly helpful as the Orioles were good in 2012. It's difficult to find reasons to believe he can repeat the trick in his sophomore campaign, though, as he had excellent luck on balls in play, leading to far more stranded baserunners than a pitcher of his caliber should expect. He is an extreme fly ball pitcher in a park designed for hitters, does not have an overabundance of swing-and-miss offerings, and does not display either exceptional control nor command. Gonzalez might start the year in the O's rotation, but if he's still there at year's end, then something has likely gone awry in Baltimore.
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Jair Jurrjens: Jurrjens has spent almost his whole career in the National League, in a park that benefits pitchers. He now finds himself in the opposite conditions, just one year after his velocity declined and he lost both a rotation spot and a major-league job. Jurrjens' whole game is trying to induce weak contact, as he lacks the kind of stuff strikeouts are made of. He's not particularly durable, he's not overly efficient, and if he can't keep his batting average on balls in play down, then he tends to scuffle. Jurrjens, a right-hander, also has issues with left-handed hitters -- the very same lefties that Orioles Park at Camden Yards boosts the production of. He's the kind of wild card the Orioles are hoarding, but he might not be the best use of limited rotation innings.
As for the other options on the roster, without a hypothetical starting job:
Steve Johnson: The rookie surprised with his performance, as his career stats in Triple-A were never very special. Despite this, he posted an ERA more than twice as low as the league average, albeit in fewer than 40 frames. Expecting that to happen again is setting yourself up for disappointment, especially since Johnson's command has historically been all over the place. However, unlike some of the other arms, Johnson might be able to help out in a relief role, as when his command is on, his middling stuff plays up well, and would likely do even better in short bursts out of the bullpen.
Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz: These three are lumped together, as they represent much of what has gone wrong in Baltimore in the few years before 2012's success. Matusz was the fifth-ranked prospect heading into 2010, according to Baseball America. Arrieta was twice a top-100 prospect. Britton, as recently as 2011, made it to #28 on the same lists. As of now, the trio has combined for nearly 1,000 major-league innings with a cumulative ERA of 5.32. Some of that is dealing with the realities of being a young pitcher in the tough AL East, but most of it is due to inconsistency, be it with injuries (Britton), velocity and stuff (Matusz), or just in terms of a season-long Jekyll and Hyde act (Arrieta).
Careers could be forged for all three in the bullpen, but it seems like a waste to go that route this year, in a season in which the O's should be experimenting to see what parts of the current squad should exist in the future. Figuring out which of the group could start long-term for Baltimore seems like a better use of 2013's time than playing around with the likes of Jair Jurrjens and Miguel Gonzalez, but maybe, at this point, the Orioles have even less faith in this trio finding their calling in the rotation than fans and analysts do.
It's difficult, but not impossible, to envision a scenario where the Orioles find five pitchers worth a rotation spot from this bunch, helping them to compete. The thing that might decide the course of their season, though, is just how long it takes them to do so: with so many options, and so many things that could go wrong, success is by no means a given.
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