Carroll County Times

Commentary: Time for O's to make tough call on starting rotation

The Baltimore Orioles are, at present, the definition of mediocre. So-so by any metric.

The played .500 ball through the end of April. They were .500 in May. They were .500 on their just-concluded 10-game road trip and there's a pretty good chance they'll finish their 10-game homestand today at .500.

Fault the starting pitching.

As inconsistent as the hitting has been, missing Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and Manny Machado for long stretches, Baltimore headed into the weekend ranked third in the American League in batting average, fourth in home runs and sixth in RBIs.

The bullpen is squarely in the middle of the pack in all categories. The defense is tied for second in fielding percentage and leads the league in double plays by a large margin.

Meanwhile, the Orioles' starter ERA is 11th in the AL despite that good defense. The starters have yielded the third-most walks while producing the 14th-most strikeouts. They've given up the second-most home runs.

There was hope Johan Santana could turn back time and solidify the rotation, but he tore his Achilles tendon. There was speculation the Orioles could trade for Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija, but the price of a top prospect is too high for a 29-year-old pending free agent with a career record of 31-41.

The only way they're going to improve the rotation is to banish anyone who isn't giving the team a chance to win nearly every time out and to find an ace.

It was expected that talented young Kevin Gausman would be returned to the minors when Miguel Gonzalez was ready to from off the disabled list, and the rest of the rotation — Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris — would remain intact.

But manager Buck Showalter said Saturday that Gonzalez would likely start Tuesday and Gausman on Wednesday, which would've been Jimenez's turn.

And that's how things should stay for the foreseeable future. No six-man rotation. No shuttling top prospect Gausman back and forth to the minors like he's Josh Stinson.

Gausman is the only pitcher on the roster with "ace" potential. He needs to stay up and pitch every fifth day. The results probably won't always be as good as they were last week (two runs in 13 innings), but every start gets him closer to becoming an ace. Maybe that happens in 2016. Or 2015. Or maybe it already has and no one yet realizes it.

So, with six starting pitchers in a rotation built for five, what's a skipper to do?

Get rid of one, of course. All a six-man rotation does is make the wait longer between starts for guys who are pitching well. And the "one" is obvious.

Yes, Tillman has the worst ERA and WHIP in the rotation and his strikeout-walk ratio is better than only Jimenez. But take away two bad outings (14 earned runs in a total of two innings) and he has pitched to a 3.36 ERA. That's pretty close to the 3.48 he posted in 2012-13. And going 30-13 since 2012 has to mean something even to the generation that ignores won-loss record.

Wei-Yin Chen (7-2) hasn't been as good as his record, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is better than 5-to-1 (57 strikeouts, 11 walks). In games not started by Chen, the Orioles' ratio is 1.7-to-1. All of his numbers have been remarkably consistent since he arrived in 2012.

Bud Norris has the best WHIP and opposing batting average of any starter on the team. The Orioles are 8-5 in his starts and he has completed at least five innings in every one.

Gonzalez has a 3.68 ERA as a major league pitcher. In 10 games (including one relief appearance) since getting rocked by the Tigers in his first start this season, Gonzalez has allowed two runs or fewer eight times. The Orioles are 31-22 in his 53 career starts.

That leaves Jimenez. Rather, that leaves Jimenez out.

It would be an easy call to drop him from the rotation if he was anyone else. But the fact that he signed a four-year, $50 million contract in the offseason — meaning he makes more than the rest of the rotation combined — makes dropping him from the rotation more complicated.

Jimenez is 2-8 and the team is 3-11 in his 14 starts. Through Friday, the Orioles were 10 games over .500 (31-21) in games not started by him.

He has allowed more walks (45) than anyone in the majors while pitching to a 4.86 ERA. After a horrid start it appeared he had figured things out in early May, but he has given up 22 walks in his last five starts.

With 3 1/2 years left on his deal and more than $40 million still owed him, it's far too early to give up on Jimenez. As awful as his stats are, they're almost identical to Cy Young winner Justin Verlander's.

But Jimenez, with his unorthodox, hard-to-repeat delivery, is simply inconsistent. When he's good (see 2010 and 2013), he's very, very good. But when he's bad (see 2011-12), he's hard to win with.

The best idea is to have Gonzalez take Jimenez's place in the rotation permanently. Or at least until someone gets hurt or pitches himself out of the rotation.

But Jimenez shouldn't automatically retain his spot any more than Gausman should automatically have been sent down. Not for this mediocre team, which so badly needs an ace and so badly needs every starter to give it a chance at a win.