With the winter meetings now behind them, the Baltimore Orioles still have a boatload of work on their desk as they failed to address their two most important needs heading into the 2014 season.
A team carried by offensive prowess can only go so far until the starting pitching and bullpen caves in on their chances of prosperity. As of right now, the Orioles are banking on a lot of players’ potential much like they did during the off-season following their 93-win 2012 campaign; and it resulted in a winning season without a playoff berth in 2013. 2012 was the most important off-season in recent history for the franchise and this one is equally as important. With the way the roster shakes out now, it appears as if Baltimore’s chances of contention are stagnating as they have yet to make any significant splashes to help bolster the product on the field.
The Orioles starting rotation would look roughly like this as of right now:
1. RHP Chris Tillman
2. LHP Wei-Yin Chen
3. RHP Miguel Gonzalez?
4. RHP Bud Norris?
5. RHP Kevin Gausman?
Sure, Tillman pitched well above what anyone thought he could be in 2013, but his repertoire translates to more of what a No. 2 and No. 3 starter can do for a club when they take the bump every fifth day. Knowing his propensity to give up the long ball, Baltimore is banking on his career-high in wins (16) to translate to back-to-back quality seasons. There’s a full scouting report on the 25-year-old now as he has gone through his first full MLB season and it is a tremendous amount of pressure being placed on him to replicate those numbers in 2014.
Considering the injury-riddled seasons and up-and-down nature of both Gonzalez and Chen, it is hard to imagine that manager Buck Showalter deep down feels as strongly about this rotation as he did with the one heading into 2013. Stability is good for certain pieces of an organization to have, but when the starting pitching is average at best, someone should be addressing that pressing issue before anything else.
It is also hard to rely on youthful talents like Kevin Gausman at this stage of his career. Doubting that Gausman can become a great player in this league is far’fetched, but his role on this club is still to be determined. The former LSU Tiger showed flashes of brilliance with his big league fastball and developed his change-up into somewhat of a strikeout pitch, but his control and ability to hit his spots were erratic and it’s clear he still has a lot of work to do. Plus, he made good and bad appearances as both a starter and reliever. Given the situation of the bullpen at this stage of the off-season, it is unclear where the 22-year-old fits.
The same can be said about Bud Norris. Coming over from the Astros, it appeared as if he had inked up a starting spot for the future. However, lack of a true rotation and precarious bullpen struggles since his arrival to Baltimore left Showalter with decisions to play him in various situations.
But starting pitching is the main issue with this team. Not the closer. Not the left field mess. Not the designated hitter.
And the Orioles missed on few that could have helped that situation improve.
While the candidates were not exactly world-beaters in terms of potential No. 1 starters for the Orioles, general manager Dan Duquette watched as many of his potential “targets” went away to other organizations for more money than the Orioles offered, despite Baltimore freeing up money with the contract of second baseman Brian Roberts, closer Jim Johnson’s trade to Oakland and the extra $25-plus million received from Major League Baseball in added revenue.
The Orioles watched as 40-year-old RHP Bartolo Colon inked a two-year, $20 million deal with the New York Mets. Duquette saw LHP Scott Kazmir get two years and $22 million from the Oakland Athletics. RHP Scott Feldman went to the Houston Astros instead of remaining in Baltimore. RHP Edison Volquez signed a one-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates — Pittsburgh ended their 20-year playoff drought in 2013 and are looking to return back to the postseason.
The lone signing that is worth any value is RHP Ryan Webb from the Miami Marlins, but even his role is uncertain as Baltimore is yet to address their need at closer. Webb will help the bullpen in what likely will be a middle-relief role for the 27-year-old, but it is not a game-changer. Maybe it is RHP Tommy Hunter. Maybe it is RHP Grant Balfour, who the Orioles are reportedly talking to but remain apart on years and terms of the contract.
ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark wrote a piece discussing his winners and losers of the winter meetings Florida. The Baltimore Orioles were on his list of losers and when he talked with a few people about the club, the overwhelming sentiment was that the team has become too complacent.
“They look like a team that’s caught in between,” one baseball executive told Stark. “They act like they don’t have any money, although I’m not sure why. They’re a little short on having enough talent to keep pace in the division. And they don’t seem like they’re going to do much to address it. They feel like they’re a team with nowhere to go.”
The reason for the bullpen’s struggles last season was the starting pitching’s inability to go deep in ball games. The Orioles had two complete games during the entire 2013 regular season. Two. One of which belonged to Feldman. The Orioles ranked 10th in the American League with 78 quality starts and 24th in all of baseball. Having to rely on Johnson, Hunter, LHP Brian Matusz and RHP Darren O’Day diminished this team’s long-term success as they were overworked by the month of August.
And it is what wore them down in 2012 as well. When the bullpen needed to come up big in the ALDS against the New York Yankees, they folded.
It’s not a blame that can be placed purely on Showalter either. Not having the horses to run the race will hurt any team’s chances of winning consistently.
The Orioles have holes scattered about despite being an 85-win baseball team in 2013. But they also have money available to address those holes. They choose to remain complacent and watch as the rest of the league jumps the gun on potential fixes to the starting pitching problem.
These next three months will show if the Orioles really have an incentive to win now or plan for the future like they have been since the early 2000’s. They missed on the opportunity to become a perennial contender last off-season and while the winner of the free-agent market and off-season doesn’t necessarily translate to wins on the field — the Toronto Blue Jays finished fifth in the AL East with 74 wins– hopefully they don’t sabotage themselves twice.