The Schmuck Stops Here Peter Schmuck's musings on the local and national sports scene

Schmuck: Orioles have to stop fooling themselves about the future of their starting rotation

It all happened so fast.

Eleven days ago, the Orioles were one game out of the second American League wild-card slot and playing better than any other team in their division. By the time they got to New York for the current four-game series against the Yankees, their playoff run was all but over.

It’s not necessary to analyze what happened because anyone with a cursory knowledge of the sport could see that the O’s beat the odds by staying in contention as long as they did with a starting rotation that was more explosive than their power-laden — but frustratingly inconsistent — lineup.

The only question is whether they can do anything about that before they return to Sarasota, Fla., next February to prepare for a season that could be the last stand for both the nucleus of the batting order and the front office.

Executive vice president Dan Duquette has a knack for finding the occasional diamond in the coal bin in the second-tier pitching market, but it’s going to take more than that to fix what ails his team. The Orioles have to go outside the organization to acquire or sign at least one solid starting pitcher or they will start next season in the same uncertain state as they did this year.

No doubt, you’ll hear a lot over the next few months about the potential of young Miguel Castro to develop into a solid starter, though he has never started a game at the major league level. Left-hander Richard Bleier’s name might even enter the conversation, though he is pretty valuable where he is in the middle of a strong bullpen.

What you’ll also hear is a lot of talk about the young arms that are showing promise and “might” show up in the majors late in the season or in 2019, but top Double-A prospect Tanner Scott was limited to just 69 innings over 24 starts this year and top organizational pitching prospect Hunter Harvey is probably going to start next season at Class-A Frederick.

So, the Orioles need to bring in somebody who isn’t just an afterthought in another organization. They have two solid young starters to build around and they’ll need a veteran presence in the rotation that isn’t a serious threat to give up six runs in the first couple innings every time he takes the mound.

Trouble is, the market conditions that have prevented the Orioles from signing a cornerstone starting pitcher the past few years remain in place. The supply/demand curve remains heavily tilted toward demand and strong organizations don’t let good pitchers get away, so the free-agent market isn’t exactly bursting with top-tier pitching talent.

That will be one of the excuses if the Orioles come back next spring with the same old song and dance in February, but there are a few pitchers projected to be free agents who could help stabilize the rotation and take some pressure off Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman.

The O’s could make a run at pending free agent right-hander Lance Lynn, who recently expressed frustration with the St. Louis Cardinals front office for slow-playing his contract situation. He’s one of the best starters in a thin market and there has been speculation that he’ll command a huge deal, but the Orioles should make a run at him — at least until the price goes beyond five years and $80 million.

Right-hander Alex Cobb also figures to be popular and, like Lynn, he has delivered a solid comeback year after recovering from Tommy John surgery. That might be problematic for the Orioles for two reasons, since they are sticklers for clean physicals and agents should be understandably wary of exposing their clients to a situation where a rejected contract could lessen their value elsewhere.

Right-hander Andrew Cashner is an interesting possibility. His 40-63 career record and 3.81 ERA would be a head-scratcher if not for the fact that he has never played on a winning team in his eight-year major league career. He signed a one-year deal with the Rangers last November and figures to get a multi-year deal this time around, but probably won’t break anybody’s bank.

Of course, if history holds, the Orioles are more likely to focus on a pitcher such as 35-year-old left-hander Jason Vargas, who is one of the winningest pitchers in the American League this season and would likely not require more than a two- or three-year commitment. They might also consider right-hander Jhoulys Chacín, who is having a solid season in San Diego and has a sub-4.00 career ERA, though he has averaged more than 3.5 walks per nine innings over his career.

Whoever Duquette decides to pursue — and that was just a sampling of the better pitchers available — he cannot afford to fool himself into imagining that the Orioles can fill out the rotation from within the organization.

If all goes well, that might be possible in 2019 or 2020, but if next September looks anything like this one, he might not be around to find out.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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