Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette earlier this week touted the presence of fourth starter Mike Wright and swingman Tyler Wilson on the Opening Day roster as a sign of the organization's strides in developing major league pitchers.
What the minor league rosters and starting rotations unveiled this week throughout the Orioles' minor league system signify, however, is that their presence on the major league roster leave a dearth of at-the-ready starting pitching in the organization.
That the leaders of the team's farm system have to go with a six-man rotation in Double-A Bowie, but have a patchwork rotation representing their last line of enforcements at the highest level in Triple-A Norfolk shows the team has more worthwhile pitching depth than they've had in a while. It's just not quite where it needs to be yet.
On Tuesday night, Triple-A Norfolk announced their first four starting pitchers were Odrisamer Despaigne, Nick Additon, Todd Redmond, and Terry Doyle. Only Despaigne, who was acquired in January from the San Diego Padres, is on the 40-man roster.
Granted, that would look different if Miguel Gonzalez had pitched well enough to save his spot on the team this spring, or if Kevin Gausman wasn't battling shoulder tendinitis that will keep him out for two weeks.
Wilson and Wright would look great alongside Despaigne at the top of that rotation — three starting pitchers on the 40-man who are only one call away.
Instead, most of the 40-man pitchers in the minor leagues are in Double-A Bowie, where there's comparatively so much talent and upside that the organization is taking the unusual step of going with a six-man starting rotation.
Right-hander Joe Gunkel, who the Orioles acquired last season for outfielder Alejandro De Aza, will start the Baysox's opener on Thursday, followed by David Hess, Parker Bridwell (after a rehab appearance by Kevin Gausman), Ariel Miranda, Chris Lee, then Jason Garcia.
When you look at the potential in this farm system, especially on the pitching side, most of it is contained here. Bridwell, Lee and Garcia are all on the 40-man roster, with Garcia transitioning back to starting after spending 2015 in the major league bullpen as a Rule 5 pick. Lee, who came from the Houston Astros last May for international bonus slots, has been a revelation and is the top left-handed starting pitching prospect in the entire system.
Bridwell made an impression in his first major league spring training and could be the first from this rotation to go to Triple-A, given he spent all of last year in Bowie. His 3.99 ERA in 18 starts there last year represented the best he's posted in full-season ball, with a 1.38 WHIP while maintaining a strikeout rate of nearly a batter per inning.
An elbow injury robbed him of the final month of his season. If Bridwell takes a step forward in the first month this year, he could get his first taste of Norfolk early this season.
Hess and Gunkel aren't to be slept on either. Hess, the team's fifth-round pick in 2014, had a 1.75 ERA between High-A Frederick and Bowie after the All-Star break last season and features a heavy, low-90s fastball. Gunkel, who said at the team's media day Tuesday that he's excited to just have the opportunity to start after being shoved out of Boston's Double-A rotation last year under a similar numbers crunch, is one of the more unheralded prospects in the system.
He commands his fastball in the zone, and generates weak contact as the ball jumps at hitters from an awkward arm angle. After coming over from the Red Sox organization, Gunkel had a 2.59 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP in 17 starts for Bowie. He could be right in line with Bridwell for an early promotion if the first six weeks or so go well for him.
The only real unknown is Miranda, who made just 14 starts last season after signing from Cuba. He has a diverse arsenal and struck out 71 in 70 innings over three levels, but it's unclear what they have in him.
Propping up this unique six-man rotation isn't to take away from what the Orioles have in Triple-A. If Despaigne is close to what he was for the Padres in 2014 (3.39 ERA, 0.6 home runs per nine innings) as opposed to 2015 (5.80 ERA, 1.2 home runs per nine innings), he'll be a more than adequate deputy for the rotation.
Additon has an extensive starting history in the minors but hasn't cracked the majors in any of his three organizations, with a career 4.51 Triple-A ERA in 479 1/3 innings at the level. The 30-year-old Redmond worked as a reliever this spring as a non-roster invitee, and has been stretched out as recently as last season with Toronto. But most of his major league experience is out of the bullpen.
Doyle, also 30, has worked as a starter for most of his career but like Additon hasn't gotten a shot at the majors.
There's nothing wrong with having serviceable Triple-A depth to fill out a rotation. And there's plenty of upside in the low minors, highlighted by top prospect Hunter Harvey in High-A Frederick's rotation once his groin strain heals and 18-year-old Dominican Ofelky Peralta starting the season in Class-A Delmarva.
It's certainly unique, though, that an organization whose Triple-A rotation is that thin on promise is able to boast a six-man rotation in Double-A to open the season.