For all the fanfare about the return of a powerful lineup and a top-ranked bullpen, the most important aspect of the Orioles' 2017 hopes is one that will have to improve organically.
The Orioles' starting rotation is returning whole from 2016, and the hope is that in a group comprised of one stalwart, a pair of promising arms, and a pair of wild cards, there's enough improvement to drastically progress from a year ago.
"Our starting rotation, I hope, is a little bit stronger," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said Saturday at the team's FanFest. "We had really good starting pitching late in the year in September, and we're returning that rotation."
The Orioles rotation was anything but stable in 2016, but team officials believe the group that ended the year was the best they had. The team arrived at its 4.72 starter ERA, which was 13th of 15 American League teams, in a circuitous way.
In spring training, Miguel Gonzalez was released in something of a surprise move, and because of a shoulder issue with Kevin Gausman, both Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson found themselves in the rotation by mid-April. Yovani Gallardo struggled for a few starts, then missed two months with a shoulder injury. By the time he returned, Gausman was back but Ubaldo Jimenez was last in every major statistical category among starting pitchers and had pitched his way out of the rotation.
Eventually, Wilson and Wright were optioned, and at the All-Star break, Dylan Bundy transitioned from the bullpen to the starting rotation. On July 30, they added left-hander Wade Miley, but he took time to find his footing on a new team.
When Chris Tillman — who manager Buck Showalter pointed out was a Cy Young contender through the first half of the season — developed a shoulder issue in August, Jimenez came back into the fold and dazzled. They worked the schedule in September to include all six of Tillman, Gausman, Bundy, Miley, Jimenez, and Gallardo, and entered the offseason with that whole group returning.
With Gallardo now dealt to the Seattle Mariners, the remaining starting pitchers were left to explain at FanFest what improvement and success would look like in 2017 for both the individuals and the collective.
Tillman, in his final year of club control, and with inevitable questions about his future, said it was more about another year of posting his annual 30-plus starts and performing consistently than making his own contract push.
Manager Buck Showalter said that model is one the team doesn't overlook.
"Chris has been a rock," Showalter said. "But someone says, 'Oh, this is a contract year for Chris.' Every year is. Chris will be the first to tell you, 'I'll make enough money this year.' He's doing it for a different reason. Obviously, he'd like to spend the rest of his career here in Baltimore, but it's about being here for his teammates. He wants to be a guy that you can count on every fifth day, and it's sincere."
Tillman, it seems, has been the only starting pitcher the Orioles can count on consistently through the years. This year, Gausman and Bundy could join him.
Gausman endured a frustrating first half of the season to explode into the discussion of the league's top young pitchers after the All-Star break, posting a 3.10 ERA in the second half to end the year with a 3.61 mark.
"I feel like throughout my career to this point, I've always gotten better as the season has gone on," Gausman said. "I've always finished strong. So, for me, now it's kind of figuring out why that is. I've started throwing a little earlier this offseason to kind of get my arm more ready for spring. That way, come April, I'm ready to go from Day 1 and I don't have the first-half struggles like I have."
Bundy, forever linked to Gausman as a fellow fourth overall draft pick, has a different challenge in establishing himself as a front-end starter for a full season. Whereas Gausman started for the whole year and is only looking to keep up his progress in 2017, Bundy only made 14 starts last season and has some growing to do to get to that level.
The thing he took most out of 2016 was what he needs to do to pitch deeper into games and be that reliable starter.
"Learning how to navigate through the lineup three or four times in a game," Bundy said. "To go seven or eight innings, you're going to have to face those guys four times or so, and learning their adjustments, what they're making on the fly, then I've got to make adjustments to be able to get those guys out three, four times in a game."
After those two come the veteran variables, with Jimenez and Miley both proving capable of pitching at a high level at nearly every stop they've made over the course of their careers. They simply haven't done it reliably in an Orioles uniform.
Both are in the final year of their contracts, though Miley has a pricey club option for 2018. Jimenez said the key will be what it always is for him: consistency.
"That's pretty much what I need to do," Jimenez said. "To be able to be there for the team, I have to find a way to be consistent like in the last two months of the season last year. I think I'm going to be able to do that if I put my mechanics together like I was able to."
New pitching coach Roger McDowell said past performance of players such as Jimenez and Miley doesn't scare him entering 2017.
"Obviously, guys go through seasons and sometimes they have sub-par seasons," McDowell said. "Does that mean they're going to have consecutive sub-par seasons? Who knows. But again, it's going to be my job to start the process of knowing the pitchers individually and helping them any way I can."