The Orioles’ signing of left-hander Wei-Yin Chen before the 2012 season was arguably the best free-agent signing of the Dan Duquette era. But when Chen became a free agent after the 2015 season, the Orioles allowed him to walk, and he found riches the form of a five-year, $80 million contract with the Miami Marlins.
Since signing that deal, Chen has struggled, mostly with staying healthy. And Saturday, he will make his first start at Camden Yards as an opposing player against his former team.
The Orioles’ contract with Chen — the team paid him about $16 million for four seasons after signing him out of the Japan Central League — was an incredible value, especially given the premium placed on starting pitching. Chen, 32, had 9.4 wins over replacement over that stretch while averaging 29 starts and 177 innings, posting a 3.72 ERA in 117 starts.
That track record of durability is what led to his big deal with the Marlins. After he pitched 706 2/3 innings with the Orioles plus the 650 2/3 innings he logged in Japan before coming to the states, the Orioles believed they had seen the best of Chen, and they were probably right. Also, in his time with the Orioles, the club was already conscientious with his workload, often finding spots to give him extra rest in order to keep him healthy.
Chen’s contract now is an albatross for the Marlins, especially given the fact that it’s so backloaded. After paying Chen $10 million in base salary this season, they owe him a combined $42 million over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Since signing with the Marlins, injuries have limited him to just 36 starts entering Saturday, this biggest of which was a ulnar collateral ligament injury in his left elbow that limited him to five starts last season and initially put much of this season – and potentially his career — in jeopardy.
He returned in late April, and Marlins manager Don Mattingly said Chen’s been “OK” in his nine starts this season.
It’s clear the Marlins are still handling Chen with care. He’s made just one start over 5 1/3 innings and has reached the 90-pitch mark just twice. In his most recent outing, Chen allowed 10 base runners (six hits and four walks) and four runs in 4 1/3 innings in an 86-pitch outing.
“He’s been OK,” Mattingly said. “He just hasn’t been deep into games and he’s had a couple rough ones, but for the most part, he’s been OK. He’s just been in a lot of deep pitch counts, not getting deep into games. But when he’s been in there, for the most part, he’s been pretty good.”
In nine starts, Chen is 1-3 with a 6.13 ERA. Aside from that, he’s shown uncharacteristic control problems. His 5.0 walks per nine innings is sixth highest among all starters who have made at least nine starts.
“I don’t know all the numbers,” Mattingly said. “Sometimes they get skewed a little bit with a bad outing or two. But he’s been a guy for the most part that has kept us in games.”
The Orioles know Chen well – maybe better than anyone – but they’ve struggled offensively against pretty much everyone. Chen has pitched well at Camden Yards — in 59 career starts, he is 24-15 with a 3.76 ERA – but it’s clear he was a different pitcher then.
And the Orioles are a much different offense, scoring one run or fewer in 31 percent of their games this season. They enter Saturday with an 8-16 record against left-handed starters and are hitting just .230 as a team against lefties.