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.