Pitch imperfect: Why the Orioles starting pitchers can succeed, and why they could struggle

SARASOTA, FLA. — Spring training did little to quell the doubts about the Orioles rotation heading into this season. If anything, concern about the team's starting pitching became more glaring during exhibition games.

The Orioles rotation posted a 4.53 ERA last season, the second-worst mark in the American League. Talk entering spring training focused on the team needing a rebound season from right-hander Chris Tillman, as well as continued progress from right-hander Kevin Gausman.


One week into spring training, the Orioles signed veteran right-hander Yovani Gallardo to a two-year, $22 million deal. Even though Gallardo's addition appeared to shore up the rotation, manager Buck Showalter made it clear there was a competition at the back end.

Here we look at the Orioles' top six starting pitchers and what needs to happen for the rotation to get back to its form from 2014, when it finished fifth in the AL with a 3.61 ERA.


Kevin Gausman

2015: 4-7, 4.25 ERA in 1121/3 innings (3-7, 4.22 ERA in 1001/3 innings over 17 starts)

Why he will have success: Because he finally has a clear head going into the season. For the first time, Gausman doesn't need to worry about being sent to the minors or to the bullpen, and that peace of mind has to help him know one bad outing won't lead to his demise. If he's able to add a quality breaking ball to his fastball-changeup combo, he will have the tools to dominate at the big league level.

Why he will struggle: If the cloud of health problems linger, Gausman could be in trouble. He said he pitched through shoulder tendinitis last year. He is aiming for 200 innings this season, but if the health of his arm is a concern — he received a precautionary cortisone injection in March — the Orioles again will be forced to handle Gausman with care instead of finally letting him loose.

Yovani Gallardo

2015: 13-11, 3.42 ERA in 1841/3 innings over 33 starts with the Texas Rangers

Why he will have success: Because he has the longest successful track record of any Orioles starter, a resume of at least 30 starts and 180 innings in each of the past seven seasons. He hasn't been in an Orioles uniform long, but he has already shown that he provides the calmness and quiet confidence the rotation needs. He's an anchor.

Why he will struggle: His strikeout rate has declined incrementally over the past four seasons, dropping from 9.0 per nine innings in 2012 to 5.9 last year. He has shown he can still pitch effectively without power stuff, but now that he's a contact pitcher, the Orioles defense must play well behind him. The Orioles will be kept busy by ground-ball outs, but as a whole the defense will have to be better than last year.

Ubaldo Jimenez

2015: 12-10, 4.11 ERA in 184 innings over 32 starts

Why he will have success: Because when he throws strikes — and doesn't hurt himself with control problems stemming from mechanical flaws in his unconventional delivery — Jimenez can be a formidable starter. Last season, his 3.3 walks per nine innings was the lowest in his 10-year career and well below his career 4.1 mark. He was 7-4 with a 2.81 ERA in 17 starts in the first half of the 2015 season.

Why he will struggle: Jimenez had a 5.63 ERA in 15 second-half starts and opponents recorded an .805 OPS against him after the All-Star break. That's an indication that hitters made adjustments to him in the second half of 2015. When Jimenez's mechanics get out of whack, it can take time for him to rediscover his best self.


Chris Tillman

2015: 11-11, 4.99 ERA in 173 innings over 31 starts

Why he will have success: Because in his true form, he's more like the pitcher who had back-to-back 200-inning seasons in 2013 and 2014 than the one who labored through last season. He appeared to begin to find his form before an ankle injury caused him to miss a start in August. Tillman pitched through it the rest of the way, but his 6.22 ERA over his last 11 starts indicated it affected him more than he said.

Why he will struggle: If his walk and strikeout rates continue to go in the wrong direction, Tillman will struggle to get back to his inning-eating ways. He's already a pitcher who goes deep into counts, but his 3.3 walks per nine innings last season — his highest since 2011 — didn't allow him to get deep into games.

Mike Wright

2015: 3-5, 6.04 ERA in 442/3 innings over 12 games (2-5, 6.48 ERA in nine starts)

Why he will have success: Because all indications this spring were that he's ready to take a step forward in his development. He showed poise and power, and was able to work his way out of jams — something he wasn't able to do in the major leagues last season. He had a tremendous offseason working with Brady Anderson in California. He has shown he can be dominant, as demonstrated by his 141/3 scoreless innings over two starts to begin his big league career.

Why he will struggle: He's sometimes unable to keep his cool when things go wrong. One of the lasting images of Wright last year was him violently punching the dugout bench over and over with the fist on his pitching hand after a 11/3-inning outing in Toronto in June. Wright had a 10.88 ERA over his final six starts.

Tyler Wilson

2015: 2-2, 3.50 ERA in 36 innings over nine games (1-2, 4.32 ERA in five starts)

Why he will have success: Because the more major league experience he gets, the better he will become. Wilson is a smart pitcher who soaks in advice and information. His stuff is pedestrian, but you can't count him out because he keeps the ball on the ground (52 percent ground-ball rate) and in the ballpark (just one homer in 36 big league innings).

Why he will struggle: As noted above, his stuff is average. His fastball barely cracks 90 mph, and even though he knows how to pitch, it's unclear whether his stuff will allow him to succeed as a full-time major league starter. He had an impressive spring, but he's more likely slotted for shuttle duty in 2016.


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