As I begin writing this post with the table below, I get that feeling of déjà vu, like I’ve already done this before (several times in fact)…
The table above shows the 2014 rankings of Baltimore’s starting pitching staff in various statistical categories. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Orioles are currently right in the middle of the playoff race, and they could desperately use an upgraded rotation to increase their chances of reaching the postseason. This has actually been the case since the team began its recent run of contention in the “magical” 2012 season, so that feeling of déjà vu is warranted, as improving the starting rotation is a topic that’s been discussed during every trade deadline and offseason since.
Let’s take a look at how the members of the 2014 rotation have performed individually.
The good news is that the team currently has only used 6 starters to date (they led the league with 14 and 12 the past two years, which is a list that you don’t want to lead). The bad news is that no one has really been all that exceptional. Their best starter (Chen) is ranked 64th in all of baseball (in terms of wins according to Fangraphs). The two nominal best starters on the staff (Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez) haven’t pitched anywhere near the level their capable of, and their peripheral statistics don’t suggest that they’ve been unlucky either. Bud Norris has pitched admirably, but he’s also a regression candidate during the second half (and is currently on the disabled list). Gausman appears to be the only bright spot right now, producing 0.6 fWAR in only 28 innings pitched.
The Orioles already have 6 starting pitchers for 5 spots, so the acquisition of another starting pitcher should result in 2 current rotation members either transferred to the bullpen removed from the roster (traded, optioned, released, etc). Maybe Wei-Yin Chen will be moved to fill other roster holes (as Jon suggested earlier this week), however, that won’t be the focus of this article. Let’s take a look at who may be available for the Orioles to get at the trade deadline (salary obligations are from the beginning of 2014 season).
- David Price ($14 million in 2014, FA in 2016)
- Cliff Lee ($62.5 million guaranteed through 2015)
- Cole Hamels ($118.5 million guaranteed through 2018)
These pitchers aren’t realistic options for a wide variety of reasons (intra-division trades, injury, prospect/monetary cost, etc.). Let’s move on.
- Jeff Samardzija ($5.35 million in 2014, FA in 2016)
- Ian Kennedy ($6.1 million in 2014, FA in 2016)
- Jason Hammel ($6 million in 2014, FA in 2015)
- A.J. Burnett ($22.5 million through 2015)
- Brandon McCarthy ($10.25 million in 2014, FA in 2015)
With that in mind, let’s go through these 5 starting pitchers listed above to see if there is a good fit.
Samardzija is having a great season and is probably the biggest difference maker out of everyone in this group. However, as Matt noted in early June, the Orioles may need to include Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman in a deal to get him, which he thought would be too much to part with. I am inclined to agree with him.
Kennedy is having his best season since he was a Cy Young candidate for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011. He’s striking out more batters than he ever has while also keeping his walk rate below his career average. His ERA may not look all that great (4.01), but you could argue that he’s been unlucky, as his FIP currently sits at a much lower 2.93.
Kennedy has been a fly ball pitcher throughout his career though (41.8%), which has been a benefit to him the last couple of years pitching in San Diego and some of the other spacious NL West ballparks. Because of this, he’s likely not good fit for Camden Yards.
Hammel is having the kind of year that the Orioles were counting on last year, when he was the team’s opening day starter. He’s accumulated 2.1 fWAR in just over 100 innings pitched. Statistically speaking, his season is very similar to that of 2012, with the exception of much lower walk and groundball rates.
Last year, the Orioles traded Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, and international signing money to the Cubs for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger. Like Feldman, Hammel will be a free agent at the end of the year, so the Orioles may be able to make a similar deal to get him, allowing Baltimore to keep their top prospects. However, at this time last season, Feldman was approximately half as valuable as Hammel currently is in terms of fWAR, so the price to acquire him could easily be higher.
While Burnett hasn’t been as good with the Phillies as he was with the Pirates, he could be a decent upgrade at minimal cost. There are causes for concern though as he’s now 37 years old and he’s not missing as many bats this year. If the Orioles are willing to pick up his remaining salary, the Phillies may not need much in prospects to make the deal happen, as long as they accept the fact that they’re not going to be contending this year. Burnett can block trades to 21 teams, but it’s likely he would accept a trade to the Orioles, as they were one of the few teams he was considering in the offseason.
McCarthy really hasn’t been having all that good of a season, but he also may be the unluckiest starting pitcher in all of baseball. Take a look at some of his 2014 statistics compared to career levels.
He hasn’t really caught a break in 2014. His ERA is over 5, but his FIP is at 3.88. And if you normalize his home run rate (HR/FB rate is double his career level despite a 22.4% fly ball rate!), his xFIP sits at a very enticing 2.92. Despite the high ERA, he’s accumulated more fWAR (1.0) than any other Orioles starter in 2014. The problem is that the rest of the league has also noticed how unlucky McCarthy has been, and he’s drawing a lot of trade interest.
Brian Kenny will love this: #DBacks’ McCarthy drawing trade interest despite 1-10 record. ERA is 5.38, but FIP is 3.99. Plus: 80Ks, 18 BB.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) June 25, 2014
The 2014 Orioles rotation has been one of the worst in all of baseball. Trading for one upgrade probably doesn’t increase the team’s odds of making the playoffs that much higher. Because of that, even a trade for David Price this very minute would only add 1.2 additional wins over the course of the rest of the season if you account for the fact that he would replace Bud Norris or Chris Tillman in the rotation (each projected by Zips to produce 0.7 fWAR, the lowest projections for any Baltimore starter). * With such a marginal upgrade, I don’t think it would be worth giving up any of Baltimore’s top 3 prospects in any deal for starting pitching this year.
*This assumes Kevin Gausman remains a member of the rotation for the rest of the season, with Miguel Gonzalez in the bullpen or the minors.
In order for Baltimore’s rotation to really show improvement, the team will not only have to gamble on a Brandon McCarthy, A.J. Burnett, or Jason Hammel pitching well the rest of the season, but they’ll also have to gamble on at least one or both of Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez returning to form. And if the price to acquire one of the three pitchers mentioned above is centered around Mike Wright, Tim Berry, or Zach Davies (Baltimore’s 6, 7, and 8 prospects according to Baseball Prospectus), I think that would be a gamble that’s worth taking.