SARASOTA, Fla. — When Ubaldo Jimenez was about to sign the biggest free-agent deal for a pitcher in Orioles franchise history, he considered the rotation he was joining.
Frankly, he didn't know much about it. He had pitched with Miguel Gonzalez years ago in a minor league all-star game. He knew of Bud Norris from their seasons competing against each other in the National League.
Jimenez, 30, had pitched against the Orioles only twice in his eight-season major league career — both last season with the Cleveland Indians. The first time, in June, he faced Zach Britton, whom Jimenez essentially has knocked out of the 2014 rotation. Then, in September, Jimenez pitched against Chris Tillman, who walked a season-high five batters in that shaky outing.
It's fair to say Jimenez wasn't exactly expecting a replica of the 1971 Orioles rotation with four 20-game winners to meet him at the clubhouse door. What he has seen so far, though, has thoroughly impressed him — especially Tillman, 25, who will be the club's Opening Day starter.
"I saw Tillman's numbers last year. I couldn't see him pitch much, but I heard about him," Jimenez said. "When I got here, I looked at the videos and looked at his numbers and said, 'Wow. He has some nasty stuff. He is tough.'"
Because of the projected rotation's experience, relatively young age and potential upside, Jimenez believes this could be the best rotation of which he has been a part in his lengthy career.
"Yes, it has the potential to be, because, in Cleveland, we had a good rotation, but we had some younger guys just coming up," Jimenez said. "But these guys are more proven over here because they have [had] to face the toughest division in the whole major leagues. I mean, you throw against the best, and it makes you better."
Signs of promise
The Orioles rotation certainly has taken its lumps in the American League — and AL East — over the years. Dating to 2000, the starting rotation's ERA has been in the bottom third of the major leagues every season and twice (in 2008 and 2011) was the worst in the majors.
The 2012 team's 4.42 starters' ERA was the best in that span, and it was still 21st overall and 10th of 14 AL teams. Last year's rotation had a 4.57 ERA, 27th in the majors and 12th of 15 teams in the AL.
And the Orioles essentially have the same personnel returning, with the exception of Jimenez, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal in February after going 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts for the Indians last year.
The Orioles hope he'll both lead and stabilize the rotation while the rest of the starters take another step forward.
"I don't know yet for sure because the bell hasn't rung, but I think [signing Jimenez] is huge for us. I think it only makes us better," Tillman said. "He's a guy who has been around for a while, and he is a guy we can go to and ask questions, and he's coming to us asking questions."
Tillman emerged as the club's top starter last year when he became the first Orioles pitcher since Mike Mussina in 1999 to win at least 16 games in a season. He posted a 3.71 ERA in a career-best 2061/3 innings.
"Chris Tillman is a totally different pitcher now. He knows how to pitch. He has a little more experience now," Gonzalez said. "I'm happy for him and proud for him."
Gonzalez, 29, posted his second consecutive sub-4.00 ERA in 2013, going 11-8 with a 3.78 ERA in 30 games (28 starts). He missed roughly three starts because of a right thumb blister in May. He is expected to be slotted fourth in the rotation behind Wei-Yin Chen, 28, who was 7-7 with a 4.07 ERA while missing two months with a strained oblique.
"I'm looking forward to [Wei-Yin Chen] being out there every fifth day for us all season," manager Buck Showalter said. "Him and Miggy would be good additions for us if we could have two guys like that that are there every fifth day."
The Orioles would also like to see what Norris, 29, can do for a full season with the club. He was acquired from the Houston Astros for outfielder L.J. Hoes and impressive left-handed pitching prospect Josh Hader in July.
It was a steep price, but the Orioles believed Norris, who was 6-9 with a 3.93 ERA last year in Houston, would thrive pitching in front of a quality defense and for an explosive offense. The results were mixed, and he finished the year with a 4-3 record and 4.80 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) with the Orioles while dealing with elbow soreness in September.
'Quality depth' this year
Norris believes the best is yet to come for him and the other members of the rotation.
"I think we all can feed off each other," Norris said. "A lot of our guys are still young enough that they are still heading into the primes of their careers. Chen and Gonzalez and Tillman and myself, we still have a lot of years ahead of us. And that goes for Ubaldo, too."
Norris is projected as the fifth starter, and yet he has made 127 major league starts; he's a year removed from the Opening Day assignment for the Astros. It's a huge departure from when the Orioles filled out the bottom of the rotation with guys straight up from Double-A.
"In the past, it has been last man standing. And in some cases the lesser of two evils," Showalter said. "It's one thing to have depth; it's another to have quality depth."
Perhaps the biggest difference between this year's pitching staff and those in the past is the quality and experience of the pitchers beyond the projected five. Last year, the Orioles had 14 pitchers make starts; 10 started at least five games. Most are still in the organization, and the backup is creating a logjam of potential starters at Triple-A or in the Orioles bullpen.
They also added two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who hopes to be recovered from shoulder surgery by June, and accomplished South Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon, who will begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk. Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy also could be pitching in games this summer after elbow surgery last June.
Britton, who has made 46 big league starts in his career, including seven last year for the Orioles, is out of options and has been stashed in the bullpen along with Brian Matusz, who ultimately wants to return to the rotation but has excelled as a left-handed reliever.
Steve Johnson, Kevin Gausman and T.J. McFarland, who all made starts for the Orioles in 2013, will begin the season at Norfolk.
"If you look at our rotation the last couple years, it has been guys who have been fighting to establish themselves as maybe the fifth guy," Johnson said. "Really, those guys are now the sixth, seventh or eighth guys. It's maybe tougher to make the team for a guy like myself, but it is also a good thing to have for the team as a whole."
Although the starting spots aren't immediately there for guys like Britton and Johnson, they've been in the organization long enough to know that opportunities arise, and the Orioles are willing to promote from within.
"When was the last time we've gone a season with five starters? You have to seize opportunities, whether it's at the beginning of camp or in August and September," said Britton, who can't be sent to Norfolk without passing through waivers. "And if we stay with the same five guys, well, that's something good. Because those teams usually win the World Series when they have the same five guys rolling out there and staying healthy."
New man in charge
One other wrinkle to the rotation is its new general, veteran pitching coach Dave Wallace, who in his career has steered four other major league staffs: the Houston Astros (2007), Boston Red Sox (2003-2006), New York Mets (1999-2000) and Los Angeles Dodgers (1995-1997).
Each group is different, he said, but this rotation reminds him of the ones he had in Los Angeles, given the talent and upside.
"When I was in L.A. in the mid-'90s, we had a real young rotation, with Pedro Astacio, Ramon Martinez, Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdez," Wallace said. "Those were four pretty young guys and pretty good pitchers. So the experience is there for me with young guys learning at the big league level."
So can this rotation be that good? Can it be better? Can it leave behind a decade of being an Achilles' heel and become a strength as the Orioles try to ascend in the AL East?
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"We'll see. You've got some guys that are established and have come up and pitched well, and there are some others who, in the last year or two, have come into their own," Wallace said. "So if they continue to develop, I think it has a chance to be a solid rotation.
"If you have your same five guys going out there and hopefully going a little deeper in games and not taxing the bullpen as much, that's the goal. Once that happens, all the other stuff pretty much takes care of itself."
The Orioles rotation hasn't ranked above 21st in the major leagues in ERA since 2000, and it has finished last twice in that span.
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