Sarasota, Fla. — The Orioles finally emerged from their self-imposed state of suspended free-agent animation to sign two veteran pitchers over the past week, which should raise the spirits of those who have been agonizing all winter about the team’s short-handed rotation.
Whether that will significantly change the outlook for the club is still an open question.
The addition of Andrew Cashner and the soon-to-be-finalized deal that brings back Chris Tillman might quiet the snarky comments about the wide-open spaces behind young starters Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, but the O’s still need a whole lot to go right — and maybe one more experienced pitcher — to have a puncher’s chance to contend in the imposing American League East.
Manager Buck Showalter knows all that, but he’s been waiting for help to arrive like everybody else and he’s pleased to have some of the cloud cover clear over his pitching staff.
“I like the fact that Andrew has pitched in the American League before,’’ he said. “It did weigh in his favor when we were talking about him and we were handicapping the guys available. You’re counting on young pitchers like Gausman and Dylan to continue to make an upward climb. I don’t see any reason why that can’t happen and we all know what Chris is capable of.”
Though there’s still plenty of uncertainty to go around, having four established starters could create flexibility at the end of the rotation instead of putting strain on the team’s minor league pitching depth. Miguel Castro appears to be the top candidate for the fifth slot, but a big spring from Rule 5 draftee Nestor Cortes Jr. might allow the O’s to keep Castro in the important middle-relief role he excelled at last season.
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Keep in mind the Orioles have not ruled out one more pitching acquisition, which would further insulate them against another rotation meltdown and — in a perfect world — create some surplus inventory if the need arises to cover for an injury at another position.
“That fifth spot is almost as exciting to me about the possibilities of what could happen there,” Showalter said, “but what it does more than anything is it allows us to be deeper than those five and not scrambling to figure out those five and all of the sudden somebody blows a shoe out there and [player development director] Brian Graham becomes the biggest opinion here. It kind of pushes things the way they’re supposed to be. There are some guys out there that probably don’t like that, but there are jobs that are still to be won there.”
Of course, while the rotation has been the most obvious trouble spot, the Orioles will need a lot more to go right to be in a position to play meaningful baseball in September and beyond. The infield defense is in flux with the departure of J.J. Hardy and the decision to move Manny Machado from third base to shortstop. Tim Beckham has accepted the challenge of moving to third, but that experiment is in its very early stages.
The O’s are also banking on bounce-back years from sluggers Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, who both are coming off negative-WAR seasons, and hoping that Caleb Joseph is ready for the rigors of a full season behind the plate.
The one area that no one seems particularly worried about is the bullpen, even though Zach Britton will be out at least until the end of May after Achilles tendon surgery. The club again seems to have sufficient depth to temporarily fill the closer role.
We’ll see how the recent moves are reflected in the lowly win projections that have been attached to the Orioles heading into spring training. Baseball Prospectus (PECOTA) currently has them winning 69 games and finishing fifth, 11 games behind the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays and 16 games behind a Tampa Bay Rays team that is trying to trade away its entire pitching staff.
Don’t despair. They have outkicked that coverage several times during the Showalter/Dan Duquette era.