NEW YORK — With the Orioles' postseason aspirations not much more than a pipe dream, one of the most important things the club can accomplish over the final two weeks of the regular season is taking stock of potential starting pitching options for the team's pending rotation overhaul.
Only two starters from this year's rotation, right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, are guaranteed to return in 2018. The club owns a $12 million club option on left-hander Wade Miley for next year, so it's possible he returns. But right-handers Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jiménez will become free agents, as will trade deadline acquisition Jeremy Hellickson. One of the Orioles' biggest weaknesses this season has been the inconsistency of the team's starting rotation, a group that returned intact from last year's postseason run. The Orioles starters entered Saturday's game in New York with a 5.60 ERA this season, the worst in the American League and 29th out of 30 major league teams. The Orioles rotation has also logged the fewest innings (779) of any team in the AL, an indication of the short starts the team was forced to overcome throughout the season.
"Obviously, our biggest need is going to be starting pitching, always," manager Buck Showalter said. "Every teams' need is starting pitching. It's hard to find. In fact some of these clubs, you see them at this time of the year, they're getting ready to play in the playoffs, which we hope to, too, and they're six, seven, eight starters deep."
The Orioles now have an opportunity to restructure that unit, and how well they do it could have the greatest effect on whether 2018 will be a more successful season than this one.
"Our rotation is going to be in transition," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "It has been in transition this year. We'd prefer it not to be, but the fact of the matter is that we have a number of pitchers in their [free agency] year, so that would be Tillman, Jiménez and [possibly] Miley, Hellickson. The club has an option on Miley to consider at the end of the season. And beyond that, we're going to be looking for some capable starting pitchers."
While right-hander Miguel Castro has been a valuable middle-inning and long reliever, the Orioles see his future as a starter, especially given his power arm and his ability to hone a third pitch. So he could fill a hole next season. No major league reliever had pitched more innings since the break entering Saturday than Castro (42 2/3 innings), and he's held hitters to a .185 average during that span.
Right-hander Gabriel Ynoa, who has been respectable in two September starts, and right-hander Mike Wright will also have the ability to build a case for next year in the season's final weeks. Wright was in the team's Opening Day rotation two years ago, and his roles have switched since, but the team giving him one more chance as a big league starter (he's out of minor league options next year) isn't out of the question. Ynoa has pitched well enough in his brief major league time this season — he has a 4.18 ERA in 23 2/3 big league innings this year in both long relief and starting roles — to earn consideration.
"Earl Weaver would say that that the best place to break in a starting pitcher is in the bullpen, and a lot of times he would look to have some long relievers in his bullpen to evaluate them for future starting opportunities," Duquette said. "We've done that a little bit this year with a couple of starters that have been on the club in long roles, like Castro, and Ynoa did well in long relief [throwing six scoreless innings] against the White Sox [in May]. He had a start the other day against the Indians, so he's shown the capabilities to pitch effectively and win at Triple-A."
Showalter guards against placing too much stock in September performances, calling it and spring training a time when evaluators can easily be fooled. But at this point, with so many rotation holes to fill, he will take any notice.
"Please fool me," Showalter said. "I'm fine. You take that into account, but what to you want them to do, fail? You've just got to understand the environment. … You have to take everything into consideration, but you can't make September be May and you can't make March be June. It is what it is, but to make good evaluations through the years, you have to have be careful in the spring and in the fall.
"But with that comes a chance to continue to make good decisions as you go forward because the opportunity to make these evaluations don't happen when the season's over."
The Orioles will take a closer look at hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott, who is expected to be called up this weekend in New York. Scott, whose fastball sits a 96-99 mph, is the organization's top power arm (11.3 strikeouts per nine innings this season at Double-A Bowie), but has also struggled with his control (6.0 walks per nine), a flaw that would quickly be exposed at the big league level. He was initially groomed as a reliever but made 24 starts this season, though just two of them were more than three innings, as he focused on honing his pitches.
"You always go down the starter [route first]," Showalter said of Scott. 'It's like when you make a guy play his way off shortstop, make a guy play off center field, his way off catching, you make him pitch his way off starting. What happens sometimes is that the need of the major league team makes that come a little bit earlier than the other ones. I'm not saying that's our need, but sometimes you need to satisfy that."
The Orioles will feel the effects of trading away several promising arms in recent years now more than ever. Over the last several years, they've traded left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to the Red Sox for Andrew Miller, dealt right-hander Zach Davies to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Gerardo Parra and left-hander Ariel Miranda to the Seattle Mariners for Miley.
All three of those pitchers are currently in their team's starting rotations. Davies is tied for the NL lead in wins with 17, owns a 3.67 ERA, and has made an NL-high 30 starts while posting a 3.4 wins above replacement, which is higher than any current Orioles starter (Bundy has a 2.8 WAR).
The Orioles also designated and eventually traded right-hander Parker Bridwell to the Angels in a roster crunch, and Bridwell has gone 7-2 with a 3.94 ERA in 17 games (16 starts) with Los Angeles.
Still having just a few of those arms now would help replenish the rotation, and even though the Orioles farm system is thin on starting pitchers ready to contribute, Duquette said he believes right-hander Yefry Ramírez, acquired in a minor league trade with the Yankees (15-3, 3.47 ERA between Bowie and Double-A Trenton), and right-hander David Hess (11-9, 3.85) are intriguing options after strong seasons at Double-A.
"We traded a number of them over the last several years being in contention, so we're starting to get another wave of young pitchers coming through our farm system," Duquette said. "Hopefully some of them will be available to help in 2018. I would expect some of them would be able to. Being an option at the start of the season is one way you could help the club. Going out and developing the skills you need and then coming up during the season, that's another way young pitchers in the farm system can help our team."
Still, Duquette said he will have to test the free-agent and trade market this offseason to fill the rotation. After the team's four-year, $50-million deal with Jiménez — which stands as the most extensive commitment the team has given a free-agent starting pitcher — didn't work out well, it's seems doubtful that the Orioles will be able to make that kind of investment in a free-agent starter. But Duquette points out that a significant amount of money — more than $50 million — is coming off the books from this year's payroll, although some of that would be put into arbitration raises.
"We're going to have to add some pitchers to our ballclub for next year," Duquette said. "You look at the number of innings that Jimenez and Tillman have given to the ballclub, so we're going to have to replace their innings. Dylan Bundy stepped up this year, he's been a workhorse for the major league team. He's done a nice job. Gausman's given us a number of innings.
"We'll take a look at some of the other young ones in spring training and beyond that we're going to need to go out and acquire some pitchers. And these young starting pitchers, they have a good opportunity. There's always opportunity in the big leagues for young starting pitchers. Let's see. They'll have a really good opportunity to develop their skills required to compete in the American League and get the experience. Some of them are going to get some experience this year."