Best- and worst-case scenarios for all potential contributors to Orioles' 2018 rotation

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A year after the descriptor “league-worst” was attached to the Orioles rotation, the club will embark on the 2018 season trying to detach from that with a mix of new faces and familiar ones.

The Orioles entered camp with only Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy — their former first-round draft picks — established as starters, and re-signed Chris Tillman while adding Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb once spring training began.

The first step this spring was to flush what came before and look ahead, where another year of major league experience for the young pitchers and solid years from the veterans could change the team’s outlook dramatically.

After evaluating some of the possible depth pieces in camp such as Mike Wright Jr., Nestor Cortes Jr. and Miguel Castro, the Orioles went the veteran route with their three signings during camp to help shore up the most volatile part of their club from a season ago.

“Looking at it now, for this team to do what we want to do, which is be the last team standing, it’s got to start with the starters,” Gausman said. “It’s got to start with the rotation. We have everything else. We’ve just got to be more consistent.”

Said Bundy: “We don’t even talk about last year as far as the starting staff. We had to get rid of that real quick, let that go, because we know we didn’t perform the way we wanted to.”

The statistical problems have been raked over for a year now — the Orioles averaged 5.2 innings per start, the fewest in the American League. They had a 5.70 starters’ ERA, worst in all of baseball, with the 30th-ranked WHIP of 1.52.

Most projection systems foresee more struggles on the starting front, but based on early-spring evidence before bringing in Cobb, manager Buck Showalter believes the group will fare much better than the previous one.

“I don’t have anything else to go by,” he said. “There’s track record with all four pitchers, and there’s some guys that ... if you told me that Cashner was going to have the exact same year he had last year, especially in our division, I’d probably sign up for that. There’s still another level. This is all stuff that we talk about down here, but until they turn on the lights and put the third deck up there, there’s a lot of unknown there. But it can snowball the other way just as quickly.

“I’ll tell you what — I don’t think I’ve ever had four pitchers with as much in common as these four do. It really seems to be a nice unit forming in there.”

If it seems even those closest to it think the Orioles rotation can go either way, that's because it can. Here are the statistical projections of those who have a chance at being in the rotation on Opening Day or joining it going forward (as of March 21), and their best-case/worst-case scenarios for the 2018 season.

Kevin Gausman

2017 stats

186 2/3 IP (34 G/GS), 11-12, 4.68 ERA, 179 K/71 BB, 1.495 WHIP

2018 projections

170 IP, 9-10, 4.24 ERA, 166 K/57 BB, 1.365 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

177 IP, 11-10, 4.38 ERA, 165 K/58 BB, 1.34 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… the Gausman who finished the last two seasons is around for six months. He had a 2.39 ERA over his last eight starts in 2016, and he had a 2.70 ERA over his last 14 starts in 2017. Those versions of Gausman, 27, go heavy with his lethal splitter-change to play off a well-commanded fastball that he doesn't overuse, and didn't let innings snowball on him. But forget doing that for six months. If Gausman does it for four months instead of one or two, the Orioles will have a good pitcher on their hands.

It goes poorly if …

… Gausman's mechanical changes, which got him on line in his delivery with his fastball command, don't take hold the way he hoped they would and it's another season of inconsistency. Additionally, trying to use a sinker he's learned from new teammate Andrew Cashner could come at the expense of the right-hander’s doing what he's done well. He's constantly tinkered with his arsenal over the years, and at a time when he finally seems to have settled on something that works, there's another offering to work in. Add all that up, and it would be another false dawn for the 2012 first-round draft pick.

Dylan Bundy

2017 stats

169 2/3 IP (28 G/GS), 13-9, 4.24 ERA, 152 K/51 BB, 1.196 WHIP

2018 projections

146 IP, 11-8, 4.19 ERA, 138 K/49 BB, 1.253 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

177 IP, 11-11, 4.56 ERA, 161 K/57 BB, 1.31 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… the Orioles can rely on Bundy, 25, to be as strong on four days’ rest in 2018 as he was when they padded his schedule with days off in 2017. Bundy's early-spring workload suggests they're building him up to that, too. There have been glimpses of the front-line starting pitcher he was expected to become when drafted fourth overall in 2011, but he's still evolving as a pitcher. Bundy conceded he got slider-happy at times in 2017, but with renewed focus on his slider and changeup, he's all of a sudden a four-pitch pitcher who opposing hitters can't get a good feel against.

It goes poorly if …

… last season's need for extra rest doesn't go away — mainly because it will be much more difficult for the Orioles to give it to him. The 2018 edition of this club doesn't have veteran starting pitchers who have to pitch around him, and Bundy at this point doesn't have the luxury of needing extra days. But if his right arm doesn't come around to a regular starter's schedule and the Orioles need to pitch him on one anyway, the results could be bad for the team's success and his long-term health as he embarks on his second season as a full-time starting pitcher.

Alex Cobb

2017 stats

179 1/3 IP (29 G/GS), 12-10, 3.66 ERA, 128 K/44 BB, 1.221 WHIP

2018 projections

152 IP, 9-9, 4.20 ERA, 120 K/45 BB, 1.296 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

140 IP, 9-8, 4.10 ERA, 105 K/38 BB, 1.31 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if ...

... Cobb brings his experience pitching in the treacherous American League East to the Orioles and takes some pressure off the young pitchers at the top of the rotation as they look to become front-line starters. To do that, Cobb would need to maintain his low walk rate and suppress his home run rate, which was never above 0.8 per nine innings before his 2015 Tommy John elbow reconstruction but was 2.05 and 1.10 per nine innings in 2016 and 2017, respectively. But if he’s as good as he was when healthy for the Rays, he’ll be an asset no matter what.

It goes poorly if ...

... the Orioles’ string of buying pitchers whose surface stats hide peripheral stats going in the wrong direction goes badly again. With the likes of Ubaldo Jiménez and Yovani Gallardo, the indicators were going the wrong way. Cobb doesn’t have as much of that as his predecessors. His strikeout rate of 6.42 per nine innings was his lowest since his major league-debut season of 2011 (6.32), but he’s maintained his fastball velocity after his surgery, so the stuff isn’t diminished. The only way it truly goes sideways is if he doesn’t live up to the money — which the Orioles know all too well.

Andrew Cashner

2017 stats (TEX)

166 2/3 IP (28 G/GS), 11-11, 3.40 ERA, 86 K/64 BB, 1.320 WHIP

2018 projections

156 IP, 8-11, 4.21 ERA, 116 K/63 BB, 1.410 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

138 IP, 7-10, 5.21 ERA, 88 K/53 BB, 1.51 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… Cashner, 31, remains the ground-ball machine he was last season with the Texas Rangers, when he held opponents to a .266 batting average on balls in play, posted an 8.6 percent home run/fly ball rate, and had his best ground-ball rate (48.6 percent) since 2013. That will all go a long way toward mitigating his lack of strikeouts — he fanned a career-low 4.64 batters per nine innings in 2017. The right-hander’s intention since arriving has been to elevate the Orioles rotation both on and off the field, and to do so on a personal level will mean the team has a reliable veteran starter on its hands.

It goes poorly if …

… Cashner mirrors the struggles of another National League pitcher who came to the Orioles after a one-year stop with the Rangers, right-hander Yovani Gallardo. Like Cashner, Gallardo came to Baltimore in 2016 after a successful statistical year on the surface that masked an overall decline in his fastball velocity and ability to miss bats. Add that with pitching against the big bats of the American League East in its small environs, and a recipe could exist for Cashner to be the latest to fail to make that transition when the Orioles need him to most.

Chris Tillman

2017 stats

93 IP (24 G/19 GS), 1-7, 7.84 ERA, 63 K/51 BB, 1.892 WHIP

2018 projections

120 IP, 7-7, 5.25 ERA, 96 K/52 BB, 1.492 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

122 IP, 6-8, 5.50 ERA, 86 K/51 BB, 1.52 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… the Tillman from before his initial shoulder injury in August 2016 is back — the right-hander who could spot up his fastball high in the zone, locate his secondary pitches and end up scraping together quality starts even when things looked shaky. That edition of Tillman, who looked primed for free-agent riches this past offseason before the shoulder and the subsequent struggles derailed him, was a 200-inning pitcher who could handle his divisional opponents well and always gave the Orioles a chance to win. The Orioles will take anything close to that.

It goes poorly if …

… Tillman, who turns 30 on April 15, deals with the same things he did last season — a trouble cocktail of a lack of confidence and a lack of command, owed to a lack of consistent mechanics. Opposing hitters told his teammates this offseason that there was just something missing from Tillman's overall package in 2017, and there's always a chance it could never come back. If all his offseason preparation doesn't take hold into games, he won't have nearly as long a leash as he did last season. A duplication of last year's struggles could make for a more ignominious exit from Baltimore than he almost had this past offseason.

Mike Wright Jr.

2017 stats

83 IP (16 G/GS), 4-6, 3.69 ERA, 71 K/26 BB, 1.289 WHIP (Triple-A Norfolk)

25 IP (13 G), 0-0, 5.76 ERA, 28 K/7 BB, 1.320 WHIP (MLB)

2018 projections

58 IP, 3-3, 5.12 ERA, 51 K/21 BB, 1.379 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

74 IP, 4-5, 5.15 ERA, 55 K/25 BB, 1.42 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… Wright, 28, finally gets and stays in the proper head space to take full advantage of his prized right arm. He's done plenty, from adding a two-seam fastball and a cutter to trying to clear his mind on the mound, in an effort to do that. But instead of trying to overpower people, success for Wright will come with a better understanding of his limitations and mental control of what's happening with himself on the mound. Accomplishing that will unlock much of what the Orioles have hoped for him as a starter for the past three seasons, and do so just in time, as he's out of minor league options.

It goes poorly if …

… Wright ends up not sticking on the Orioles roster and ends up realizing his potential elsewhere, a la Jake Arrieta and Parker Bridwell before him. However callous, simple poor performance won't do much — he's gotten chances and the Orioles tried to get as much out of him as they could. Several other teams have been interested in seeing if they can figure it out with him. For an organization that's constantly reminded of those who have left and found themselves after taking off an Orioles jersey for the final time, that's a worse scenario than Wright simply pitching poorly.

Miguel Castro

2017 stats

24 1/3 IP (6 G), 3-0, 4.44 ERA, 11 K/6 BB, 1.192 WHIP (Double-A Bowie)

66 1/3 IP (39 G/1 GS), 3-3, 3.53 ERA, 38 K/28 BB, 1.221 WHIP (MLB)

2018 projections

60 IP, 3-3, 4.20 ERA, 50 K/23 BB, 1.283 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

46 IP, 2-3, 5.19 ERA, 29 K/20 BB, 1.53 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… the formula that worked so well in 2017 as a long reliever — a hard, sinking fastball that doesn't miss bats but elicits weak contact and tons of ground balls — holds over as a starter. Castro, 23, uses his high-80s slider and strong changeup to neutralize right-handers and left-handers, respectively, and capitalizes on the chance to be a major league starter that the Toronto Blue Jays took away from him three seasons ago. In a smaller sample size, the blueprint exists for him to keep the ball down and use his defense to great effect in 2018.

It goes poorly if …

… going through a lineup twice or three times proves too difficult for a pitcher who was able to strike out only 5.16 batters per nine innings in 2017 and seemed to lose some effectiveness down the stretch as he tired from the heaviest workload of any reliever in baseball after the All-Star break. Because the right-hander has a minor league option and the Orioles will undoubtedly be shuffling their pitching staff as the season goes on, a poor start to the season could mean he rides the Norfolk shuttle and never gets going.

Nestor Cortes Jr.

2017 stats

4 1/3 IP (1 G), 0-0, 2.08 ERA, 3 K/1 BB, 1.615 WHIP (High-A Tampa)

52 IP (18 G/7 GS), 5-0, 2.60 ERA, 45 K/20 BB, 1.058 WHIP (Double-A Bowie)

48 1/3 IP (11 G/6 GS), 2-4, 1.49 ERA, 57 K/11 BB, 1.055 WHIP (Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre)

2018 projections

25 IP, 1-1, 4.55 ERA, 23K/9BB, 1.35 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… Cortes, 23, sticks on the roster and is able to replicate the success he's had at every step in the minor leagues. He's been an oft-overlooked left-hander without premium velocity but with an ability to manipulate the ball and deceive hitters his entire career, and given his shaky spring, expectations could be low entering the season. So, even with detailed scouting reports in the big leagues, he has enough ways to get hitters out to stay ahead of the league, frustrate hitters down in the zone and puzzle the American League.

It goes poorly if …

… the Orioles try to keep Cortes and he's not ready. As a left-hander who can succeed in any role, it will be tempting to try to keep him. But with his fastball only bumping up against the 90 mph mark and command that can be good but not always great, Cortes runs the risk of having every mistake he makes hit hard. In the past, the Orioles have gone to great lengths to keep Rule 5 draft picks for the long haul at the expense of the short-term health of the team, and it'd be bad for both sides if that happens again this summer.

Hunter Harvey

2017 stats

5 IP (3 G/GS), 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 6 K/0 BB, 1.200 WHIP (GCL Orioles)

5 IP (2 G/GS), 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 10 K/3 BB, 0.800 WHIP (Short-A Aberdeen)

8 2/3 IP (3 G/GS), 0-1, 2.08 ERA, 14 K/3 BB, 0.808 WHIP (Low-A Delmarva)

2018 projections

9 IP, 1-0, 4.32 ERA, 11 K/5 BB, 1.38 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… Harvey, 23, ends the season healthy, wherever he ends up. After pitching 31 1/3 innings over the past three seasons and dealing with myriad injuries that culminated with elbow reconstruction in 2016, Harvey making it through the season with his innings built up for the future is the main goal. How can that benefit the Orioles and Harvey? The club would love to use what it did with Dylan Bundy in 2016 as a precedent, but the true benefit would be the major league crash course on how to manage a game and get hitters out in a variety of ways that he missed during all that time on the minor league disabled list.

It goes poorly if …

… the Orioles can't resist a lively fastball in the mid 90s, the hammer curveball and the developing changeup that has made the right-hander one of their best arms in spring training, and shotgun him to the major leagues without any real minor league experience since 2014. There are two ways that can go wrong: He can get hurt again, or he can struggle and see his development stunted. Either of those outcomes would be a big blow to the player and the organization as it waits for the emergence of a homegrown ace.

Gabriel Ynoa

2017 stats

106 1/3 IP (21 G/GS), 6-9, 5.25 ERA, 72 K/24 BB, 1.439 WHIP (Triple-A Norfolk)

34 2/3 IP (9 G/4 GS), 2-3, 4.15 ERA, 26 K/8 BB, 1.356 WHIP (MLB)

2018 projections

57 IP, 3-3, 4.42 ERA, 53 K/19 BB, 1.368 WHIP (Baseball Reference)

111 IP, 6-8, 5.41 ERA, 66 K/31 BB, 1.46 WHIP (FanGraphs Depth Charts)

It goes well if …

… Ynoa, 24, is protected from facing lineups full of left-handed hitters and uses his fastball-slider combination to carve through opposing lineups. Ynoa has his best success with those two pitches, and his breaking ball can be an absolute wipeout pitch, so a sustained run of success will include him focusing on that pitch and dominating right-handers with it. There's also a parallel scenario in which, though the right-hander is out of options, the Orioles have him relieve so he can stay on the roster and realize the bullpen profile other teams see for him.

It goes poorly if …

… the Orioles keep Ynoa around at the major league level just to keep him from losing him on waivers when it's time to take him off the roster. Ynoa had some major league success in 2017, but he has no track record of success against left-handed hitters and that will be exposed as a starter. Like Wright, Ynoa is the type of pitcher the Orioles don't want to lose as much as they want to see them succeed here. But if it's not happening, especially early in the season, keeping Ynoa around could prove frustrating for all sides.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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