14 July 2014

Reworking the Orioles' Rotation for a Playoff Push

The Orioles are a good team, and they have a real shot at making the playoffs. But the O's, like all teams, have flaws. They won't address all of them through the trade market but will likely address some. And one of the team's flaws is the quality of the starting rotation.

The O's have a collection of unremarkable starting pitchers. Of the team's five main starters in the first half-plus of the season, Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen have probably been the best, and that's partly because they've simply thrown the most innings. Then comes Bud Norris, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Miguel Gonzalez, in some order. Of the five, only Norris has an ERA below 4 (3.96). Only Chen (4.41) has a FIP below 4.42, and only Chen (3.80) has an xFIP below 4. (American league starting pitcher averages in those areas: ERA: 4.06; FIP: 3.98; xFIP: 3.96.) Overall, O's starters rank 28th in the majors in K/9 (6.82), 11th in BB/9 (3.18; Jimenez has a BB/9 of 5.42), t-24th in HR/9 (1.02), and 19th in GB% (45.3%). They're also t-23rd in innings pitched per start (5.8; MLB average is 6.0).

So the O's rotation has been serviceable at times but certainly not very good, and it's something that could use some improvement. At the moment, Jimenez is on the disabled list with an ankle injury, and the earliest he can return is July 23. It's unclear if he'll be able to return on that date, but his injury does not appear to be serious. Still, when healthy, he will return to the rotation. Tillman and Chen will also keep their rotation spots. And Kevin Gausman, who has been the team's most impressive and entertaining starting pitcher despite receiving only six starts, will likely stick around for the playoff push and won't be restricted by an innings limit -- though who really knows considering the Orioles' peculiar handling of him. If he has a few bad outings, don't be surprised if he's back in Norfolk (or Aberdeen).

Tillman-Jimenez-Chen-Gausman is a decent foursome; it would look even better if Jimenez would stop walking everyone. That contract isn't looking so good right now, but the Orioles are going to keep sending him out there, hoping he turns things around. So who gets the last rotation spot: Gonzalez or Norris? Well, it's not that simple. Roch Kubatko of MASN is convinced the Orioles are going to use a six-man rotation. The O's have also recently been linked to starters Jorge de la Rosa and Ian Kennedy, which further muddies the team's rotation plans. (It's worth noting that Gonzalez (Norfolk) and Norris (Bowie) were both temporarily optioned so that they can each make starts and get some work in during the break.)

A six-man rotation is not practical. The difference between any of the team's rotation options is not all that great, and it would be unnecessary to wedge in extra starts for both Norris and Gonzalez instead of moving one to the bullpen and/or trading someone. Carrying an extra starting pitcher also means one less full-time reliever.

So here is what I would do:

Trade for a starter

No, the Orioles are not going after David Price, Cliff Lee, or Cole Hamels. And I would stay far away from de la Rosa, who isn't really that good anyway and definitely doesn't provide any clear upgrade over the starters the Orioles already have. But someone like Kennedy would make some sense. His status as a flyball pitcher would be somewhat of a concern; he's currently thriving in spacious Petco Park with the Padres after struggling at times with home runs in Arizona. In 124.1 innings this season, Kennedy has a 3.47 ERA, though he's actually pitched a bit better than that (2.92 FIP, 3.16 xFIP). His strikeout rate would be the highest of his career (9.63 vs. 8.11 career) and his walks are down as well (2.46 vs. 2.95 career). His HR/FB rate is down somewhat (8% vs. 9.9% career), likely helped by the ballpark, though he has been a little unlucky on balls in play (.315 BABIP). It's also worth mentioning that his average fastball velocity (91.9) is the highest it's been in the majors (not counting his 1 inning of work with the Yankees in 2009). Throughout his career, his fastballs have been around 90 mph. Kennedy's flyball tendencies would be a little worrisome, but unlike other Orioles' starters, his ability to get strikeouts and limit walks makes those fly balls less concerning.

Another option: How about Bartolo Colon? At 41, he's still chugging along (3.99 ERA, 6.58 K/9, 1.26 BB/9). Moving back to the AL would mean he wouldn't have to bat anymore -- which is good for him, though bad for baseball fans. He would present a moderate upgrade. Colon's age is a concern, but it would likely take less to acquire him.

Kennedy has one year of arbitration left; he's making $6.1 million this season and should be in store for a nice raise in 2015. Colon is in the first year of a two-year, $20 million contract. He's making $9 million this season and will make $11 million in 2015. The Orioles may prefer to target pitchers who are free agents after this season, both for financial flexibility and because Dylan Bundy or others may be ready to join the major league club in the near future. Still, there are ways to open up future rotation spots, and it wouldn't be the worst thing to have another reliable starter around who doesn't struggle to get through five innings.

The cost? Perhaps a package built around Eduardo Rodriguez would get the job done. The O's have appeared unwilling to part with their top pitching prospects so far, but upgrading the rotation and still being able to keep Gausman, Bundy, and Hunter Harvey may not be a bad idea. This strategy is not without its risks; just look at the Scott Feldman/Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta/Pedro Strop trade with the Cubs. But the O's have a real shot to win the AL East, and that opportunity doesn't present itself very often.

Trade Bud Norris

I guess you could replace Norris's name with either Chen or Gonzalez, but I wouldn't. First, contract reminders: Norris has one year of arbitration left and is making $5.3 million this season. Chen has a $4.75 million club option in 2015 that will obviously be picked up. And Gonzalez is under team control through 2018. Chen is the better pitcher of the three, and he or Norris could realistically be flipped to get a piece to help this season or sometime down the road. But since the O's are trying to win now, I would doubt the logic of jettisoning Chen. And Gonzalez may only be decent, but he's still a valuable player at such a cheap price.

Move Miguel Gonzalez to the bullpen

With Kennedy/Colon/other decent starting pitcher upgrade joining Tillman, Jimenez, Chen, and Gausman, Gonzalez should be moved to the bullpen. He could take the spot of Brad Brach or T.J. McFarland. Gonzalez would probably be most valuable as a long reliever, but he could occasionally be used in one- or two-inning outings as needed. Brach and McFarland have both been helpful lately, but let's no go overboard. They are both outpitching their low-3 ERAs, and Gonzalez is the better pitcher. Maybe McFarland being left-handed gives him a bit of an advantage over Brach because the only other matchup lefty in the bullpen is Brian Matusz with Zach Britton entrenched as the closer.

Leave Kevin Gausman alone

Gausman has earned the right to pitch out of the rotation without having to look over his shoulder every outing. Yes, the O's are in the fight to win the division, and that means lots of pressure. But Gausman has jumped through plenty of hoops, and he's still pitched effectively at times in the majors, occasionally showing flashes of brilliance. He is one of the O's five best starters, and they should start treating him that way.


So that's what I would do, or something similar. Agree/disagree? Maybe some wouldn't mind the huge cost it would take to acquire Price or Hamels. Feel free to argue your side.


Anonymous said...

Gausman is in the rotation. He is only on the roster for his starts so the Os have the extra relief arm.

Health is a good problem for the Os to have. I do wonder how Gausman the closer does if it comes to that. I would expect him to excel. That leaves Britton to be a bullpen arm especially against lefties. So far this year his splits are even bigger than his career splits.

Is Norris REALLY a three-pitch pitcher yet? His current ERA may be smoke and mirrors. If so, the bullpen may be his final location.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Gausman the closer? Huh?

Jon Shepherd said...

Also...Gausman must adhere to option rules which means he must miss one or two starts if sent down unless there is an injury for which he can be recalled. He simply is not shuttled freely back and forth.

David said...

Jimenez has been the worst of the bunch. It's a shame that his contract mandates he starts every fifth day when healthy.

As for Gausman, I'm telling myself he was shuffled back and forth from the minors to keep his innings down so he could pitch every fifth day after the break. That way they don't run into the problem the Nats had with Strasburg.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I guess that makes some sense. But things like the Orioles starting him on short rest earlier in the season after he recovered from pneumonia are odd.

Mike Bonsiero said...

Saying Britton's "splits are even bigger than his career splits" (as anonymous above said) is one of the best examples I can think of saying something that's factually accurate but devoid of any actual point. Britton has been dominant against both RH and LH batters this year, so it's irrelevant that he's more dominant against lefties.

So there's no reason to move him off the closer role even if putting Gausman in the bullpen wasn't already dumb for about a dozen other reasons.

On the topic at hand, the Orioles rotation is in the odd position of having a surplus AND needing an upgrade. The ideal plan would be a two step process where they trade Norris or Gonzalez to a team that needs an upgrade in the back-end and then make another move that upgrades the mid-top of the Orioles, but that's the type of sequence that's tough to navigate around the trading deadline (as opposed to the off-season).

Ryan Solonche said...

Colon for Eduardo makes sense, but feels like "settling" for another 4 ERA SP we probably have, albeit not with his experience. The Mets would be thrilled to get a LHP with Eduardo's upside for a 41 year veteran who has used deer-antler spray and stem cell surgeries to keep his arm together. If they had signed him in the off-season, fine, but to trade a top 5 prospect in your system for him is a gamble you should've just made on his contract alone.

It's a tough spot to have a surplus of back-end arms, a top-heavy farm system with SP's; and to work out a trade that upgrades the staff while not mortgaging the farm.

One solution - as you mentioned -is to package the "6th" man candidates like MiGo, Norris, McFarland - yet, they all seem kind of unappealing for a team like San Diego trying to rebuild - not to mention there will probably be a lot of competitive packages made for Kennedy. I'm skeptical the O's can get anything done without moving Harvey or Eduardo, and I'm even more skeptical the available SP's are worth it.

Do you guys think there are any speculative SP candidates out there that we haven't heard of yet? Most of the MLB activity so far has been expected.

Unknown said...

It's my understanding that the recent shuttling of Gausman off and on the major-league roster is simply an attempt to use various roster-rule loopholes to put another relief arm in the bullpen. The "twenty-sixth man" is one of those exceptions; he was optioned on day 0; recalled as the twenty-sixth man for a start on regular rest during a doubleheader on day 5, and recalled again on day 10.

Anonymous said...

Forget all the advanced stats and simply realize Gonzalez has been the most consistant starter over the last 3years. If you take away the 35 degree rain game where he hadn't pitched for over 10 days and he has the best era on the team. The guy can pitch and belongs in the rotation.

Unknown said...

I disagree about an extra starter. Buck should go with off loading Lough and telling Jimenez he needs to sit in Norfolk and going with Gausman and an 8 man bullpen....if a starter gives up 4 runs in a game.....yank him...we've waited 31 years for this chance. Ben Alexandria, Virginia

Matt Kremnitzer said...

The O's most consistent starter the last three years has probably been Chen, who will throw more than 130 innings for the third straight year. Gonzalez and Tillman have only done that once (last season). Those are the only three you can pick from, because they're the only starters still around for three years.

Tillman's not leaving the rotation, and I'd pick Chen over Gonzalez. But I think the bullpen would suit Gonzalez better. The O's would be able to space out his appearances better if necessary, which is something they already need to do over the course of the season because he can't pitch every five days over a 162-game season.

I think Gonzalez is good. But, as stated in the piece, I think moving him to the bullpen and making a couple of other moves could both strengthen the entire pitching staff.

Matt Kremnitzer said...


You can't just leave Ubaldo in Norfolk, no matter how much you dislike him. Apparently the O's want him to pitch in the minors in a rehab assignment before he returns, but when he's healthy, he's coming back to the rotation. There's no way to avoid that, unless they put him in the bullpen.

Also, why "offload" Lough? As Jon has discussed previously, his defense is extremely valuable, and his defense and speed are both useful in late-game situations. Lough also is out of options, so he can't just be demoted to Norfolk.

Unknown said...

I think there are enough guys to cover the outfield.....I think the O's strength is their ability to put 7 potential .290 + hitters in the lineup...they have 4 gold glove winners in the field and the bullpen is top three in the AL. An eighth pitcher in the bullpen whould be a Meek or Guilet guy for mopping up for three or four innings and to help the other 7 stay fresh...Jimenez comes back then put Gausman in the bullpen.

Unknown said...

And then Buck should tell Jimenez (when he comes back) if you walk two guys you're taking a shower....or if you give up three runs in the first five innings you're taking a shower.

Jon Shepherd said...

Benjamin - that is certainly an interesting idea for handling Jimenez, but I question how useful it would be. I mean...it is not as if he is not trying. Based on what I have heard he is one of the more hard working and humble guys around. He just has temperamental mechanics which is something we already knew when the team signed him. Like it or not, he will be in the rotation for the next few seasons.

Re Lough...his defense is actually quite amazing. He is one of the few outfielders who could start based entirely on his glove. He is the Adam Everett of left fielders. His importance in my opinion is more of a thinking to next year thing.

Eddie Lim said...

Ubaldo has not been as advertised but we shouldn't forget his second half for the Indians last season. He is the only pitcher on the rotation (except maybe Gausman)capable of a dominant stretch of 2 or 3 months. Post-AS break last season he had a 1.82 ERA with 100 K's in 84 IP after a 4.56 ERA in the 1st half. Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez and Norris do not have that in them. We have to give him a chance to find himself.

Anonymous said...

How about Jimenez, Rodriguez, Harvey, and 2 first round picks for Chris Sale? Any chance the White Sox would do a deal for prospects not named Bundy or Gausmann? If so, we gotta go after him. He's the only SP I've heard rumors about being traded that would be a major upgrade in the short and long term. (Price aside knowing Rays wont deal within AL East)

Anonymous said...

Cruz for David Price.

Jon Shepherd said...

Eddie - Jimenez is very close to what was advertised. Or, maybe, he is pretty much what he advertised. A starter who has issues with consistent mechanics who the Indians rejected. As we call him here, he was Plan F. I am not sure how the fifth or so pitcher targeted in a single off season can be lauded too much.

Anon - You cannot trade first round draft picks. You can trade economic comp picks, but those have yet to be determined as to who has them and they are only available a year at a time.

Anonymous said...

Jon, thanks for the note, sorry for the ignorance,

however the question remains, is there a package that we can offer for Sale that the Sox should consider accepting that doesn't involve Bundy or Gausman?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

No, there isn't one.

Matt Perez said...

We can always offer them Machado. That's probably who they'd want anyway.

Anonymous said...

Here are three ideas on what to do with Jimenez:

1. Relegate him to the mop-up role and let Gausman take his spot in the rotation.

2. Alternatively, put him on a pitch count of 90. Why this number? Because Jimenez has an ERA of 3.88 for the first 90 pitches, but 9.26 afterward. (The only other person in this team's rotation who has such a sharp drop-off after 90 pitches is Gonzalez. Which brings us to Option #3...)

3. Pair up Jimenez with Gonzalez and let them be a "relay team." It's like platooning, but for pitchers; either of them will "start" a game and be expected to last for only 4-5 innings and be replaced with the other for the remaining half of the game. This makes sense given their L/R splits:

Gonzalez: 3.19 ERA this season vs. left / 5.05 vs. right

Jimenez: 5.26 ERA vs. left / 3.72 vs. right

Anonymous said...

Gonzalez worst era in his 3 years as a starter is 4.04 (currently 2nd best on team and on a downward trend) he has a career era of 3.69 which is best of the O's starters. I'll take 28 starts a year with those numbers over 33 with an rea over 4 consistently like Chen. Chen is the only left handed starter so he should probably stay but he can't pitch every 5 too and as the year goes on he breaks down and gonzo doesn't.

Anonymous said...

i really think Bud is going under appreciated. He averages the longest start per outing on the staff and always seems to keep the team in it. i would be very upset if something happened to Bud. And Ubaldo hasnt been as bad as everyone is making it out to be. If he hadnt walked every batter in the AL so far his numbers wouldnt be bad at all. His stuff is still there and he isnt getting lit up with hard hits or anything. he just hasnt been able to find that consistant delivery yet.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I think Gonzalez is fine. But I'm not sure how he's a more durable pitcher than Chen. And if you're just looking at ERA, you're only looking at a piece of the overall picture.

You can say nice things about all of the O's starters. The O's have more decent options than they had, say, a few years ago. But if you want to upgrade the rotation, you can't just keep running out OK starters like Chen, Gonzalez, Norris, etc. and expect them to perform like stars. They are useful arms, but they aren't top-of-the-rotation talent. That doesn't mean they are bad, at all. But it does mean the O's rotation has room to improve.