In case you haven't been paying close attention, or are in a constant state of denial, the Orioles have some serious starting rotation question marks. FanGraphs has been posting its 2016 positional power rankings series, and the O's starting rotation options ranked 28th in the majors.
That low ranking should not come as a surprise. With Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, and Miguel Gonzalez, the O's have some decent starting pitchers, but none who should be considered superb or an ace. Then there's Kevin Gausman, who has the highest upside of anyone in the group and the potential to be a front-line arm. But he's also dealing with shoulder tendinitis, and he'll begin the year on the disabled list.
To round out the current starting options, Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright are seemingly in a constant -- but friendly! -- battle to take over for whomever in the group falters or gets injured (depending on Gausman's status in a few weeks). Then, in some order, there's Vance Worley, T.J. McFarland, Odrisamer Despaigne, Parker Bridwell, and Chris Lee. And in the impatient/pipe-dream category, there's Dylan Bundy. The Orioles could always acquire another starter, so things could change quickly.
Besides the rotation, the O's have the makings of a solid team. The offense, which doesn't have a bunch of high on-base types but does have lots of power bats, should feature plenty of homers and still score lots of runs. Defensively, the O's project to be pretty good in the infield. Mark Trumbo's defense is a serious concern in right field, but Adam Jones should at least be adequate in center. Left field is currently a question mark. Joey Rickard, the talk of O's camp, is a lock to make the opening day roster and at least comes with the reputation of a strong defensive outfielder. And despite being heavily relied on yet again, the bullpen should again be one of the best in the American League.
Things don't always go according to plan, but it sure seems like the starting rotation is the main issue holding the Orioles back from competing for the AL East crown. If you read any season preview of the Orioles, it won't take long to get to the team's starting rotation woes.
Anyway, you know what the projections say, and it isn't good. So let's take a hypothetical look at the best and worst cases for the O's projected rotation.
Tillman gets the nod on opening day for the Orioles. Because, you know, someone has to do it. The BABIP gods struck back against Tillman a bit last year (.293) after posting below average numbers the two years prior (.269 and .267, respectively). That could have something to do with him slowly becoming more of a groundball pitcher and incorporating a sinker. In his three full-time seasons, he's gone from 39% to 41% to 44%, which is an interesting shift. Still, Tillman doesn't miss enough bats and isn't efficient enough in limiting walks or generating ground balls to be considered anything better than a back-end arm.
You could see things breaking right for him and Tillman posting a similar season to 2014, when he had a 3.34 ERA despite peripheral numbers that suggested he wasn't that good. That year, he had an fWAR of 2.4. That's probably the best case. Worst case? Probably something like last year's 4.99 ERA and 1.9 fWAR, with the frightening potential to somehow underperform even those numbers.
You never know precisely what you're getting with Jimenez. And that should be well documented by now. He's consistently inconsistent (another way of saying he's somewhere between average and above average), and from start to start can look like a completely different pitcher. O's fans have already seen the worst-case version of Jimenez: the 2014 edition, with a 4.81 ERA that essentially matched his performance, a ridiculous amount of walks (5.53 BB/9), and many fewer generated ground balls. That year, he posted an fWAR of 0.4, and it's hard to imagine him being worse.
Jimenez's best-case scenario is something close to 3 fWAR -- so a bit better than last year, when he cut his walks by more than two per nine innings and posted his highest groundball percentage since 2009.
Gallardo is a good pitcher with a proven track record, and he makes the Orioles slightly better. But looking beyond ERA, his declining strikeout rates are noteworthy, his decreasing velocity is concerning, and a concern with his shoulder that was revealed during the O's physical process led to a restructured two-year deal (with an option).
Gallardo hasn't posted a 3+ fWAR season since 2011, but the Orioles would be thrilled to get anything within the 2.5-3 fWAR range in 2016. But there's always the chance that this is the year when he's unable to limit the amount of damage and his low strikeout totals start to haunt him. In that case, something closer to an fWAR of 1 seems possible, and would be problematic.
Gausman is the youngest of the group, and he also has the biggest chance to be a difference maker. Unfortunately, it's getting dangerously close to that time of worrying if he'll ever live up to his draft position and hype. He'll start the year on the disabled list, but there's optimism that he will be able to pitch pain-free soon. The Orioles are more or less counting on him to take a huge step forward, even if everything they've done with him the past few seasons wasn't exactly in his best interest. It's not like the Orioles deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to grooming pitching prospects.
A full season building off what he did last year, while being better at keeping the ball in the ballpark, would surely be welcomed. Gausman's has top-of-the-rotation upside, so an fWAR above 3 is certainly within reason if he's able to come back healthy and avoid any injury concerns. Then again, injury issues could plague him the entire year, or perhaps he starts the year and is ineffective enough to warrant another ride on the Norfolk shuttle. If Gausman's not able to put everything together this year, it may be time to wonder if the O's eventually deal him away.
Gonzalez has been awful this spring, and he was some combination of bad and injured last season. Depending on what you believe (and because he can be optioned), he's in a close battle with Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright for fifth starter duties. It's been a marvel to watch Gonzalez outperform his peripherals every year -- until last year, at least. If you want to give him the benefit of the doubt for pitching through pain, that's fine. It's not like his peripherals were all that different from years past, though his inability to limit the damage with runners on base cost him dearly.
Because he never rates well in fielding independent metrics, Gonzalez has never posted an fWAR over 1.6. So that would likely be his best-case scenario: something close to 175 innings and an ERA in the 3.5-3.75 range. The worst case is that he's ineffective early on, quickly loses his rotation spot, and is unable to rekindle what worked for him from 2012-2014. Even if that ends up being the case, he'll be regarded as one of the best finds and surprises of the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era.
It's not a good sign when a large portion of a team's starting rotation needs to rebound considerably. And it's tough to overlook the starting rotation woes. But it is possible to still be positive about this team, and that's because starting rotation questions are nothing new for the Orioles under Buck Showalter.
Go back and look at other rotation options during Showalter's tenure. Rotation mainstay Wei-Yin Chen is gone, but there really is not much of substance there. There are names like Jason Hammel, Tillman, Gonzalez, Tommy Hunter, Joe Saunders, McFarland, Jake Arrieta (before he became Jake Arrieta), Scott Feldman, Bud Norris, Freddy Garcia, Jimenez, Gausman, and several others (none of them amazing).
Frustratingly, things have not changed much. It's an uphill battle to overcome a lack of quality starting pitching. But it's hardly impossible, even if it's occasionally hard to watch. And I can guarantee you that it will be very tough to watch at times this season.