Schmuck: Kevin Gausman again looking like odd man out of Orioles' rotation

Spring training has come to an end and the Orioles still have too many starting pitchers, which is a good problem to have if you're not the guy who will have to wait around indefinitely for his chance to join the rotation.

That apparently will be top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman, who is expected to open the season either in the bullpen or at Triple-A Norfolk.


He's not complaining, of course, because he's a good kid and he's still got some growing up to do, but there has to come a point where the Orioles stop bouncing him around and put him in the rotation to stay.

There is an axiom in baseball that situations like this one tend to work themselves out, and there was plenty of room to think that would happen when the Orioles opened pitcher/catcher workouts six weeks ago. Veteran Ubaldo Jimenez was coming off a very disappointing first season with the club and, well, how many teams get through the spring without a single significant pitching injury?

Manager Buck Showalter feigns knocking on wood any time that question comes up, but he doesn't have to do that anymore. The Orioles open the regular season on Monday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, and — barring a last-minute trade to ease the overcrowding — both Gausman and Jimenez will be hard-pressed to get much work for awhile.

The schedule is so full of days off during the first couple months of the season that you can count the number of obvious fifth-starter opportunities between now and early June on one hand. Though nothing has been announced yet, it seems very likely that Jimenez will get the first one on April 15.

He's the highest-paid pitcher on the staff and there is little to be gained by trying to use him in the bullpen. He also has risen to the challenge laid out for him by Showalter this spring, pitching more than any other Oriole during the exhibition season and displaying improved mechanics and control after walking 77 batters in just 125 1/3 innings last season.

Gausman, meanwhile, was used sparingly in Grapefruit League games and showed during the postseason last year that he can come in from the pen and pitch effectively. His long relief appearances in the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers and in the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals were simply terrific.

The question remains, however, whether the pending decision to hold him back again is in his best interests or just the best interests of a team that needs to get the most out of its veteran starters in anticipation of a possibly dramatic personnel shift at the end of this season.

Both Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris will be eligible for free agency next winter, so Gausman almost certainly will be a top-four starter in 2016. He might move up in the rotation sooner than that if the club decides to move Norris at some point over the next four months.

Either way, part of the plan is to make sure he remains fresh throughout the season and is capable of pitching well into October. Showalter has a habit of slow-playing young pitchers to conserve innings, but he could do that with Gausman as the fifth starter because of the limited number of fifth starts during the first third of the season.

There is still a chance he will go down and start for the Tides, but the recent injury to hot-hitting reserve infield candidate Jimmy Paredes prompted Showalter to reopen the possibility of starting the season with a 13-man pitching staff. That might be a silver lining because Gausman has already proven he belongs in the big leagues.

It's impossible to predict how Gausman will be affected by all the uncertainty he has had to deal with over the past couple of years. Though Showalter likes to say that it's hard to screw up the good ones, there's no sense testing that theory for too long with a young man who has the potential to be a legitimate front-of-the-rotation pitcher.

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


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