Heading into the 2017 season, the Baltimore Orioles have more starting pitchers than starting rotation spots. While this is a good problem to have, those starters don’t exactly provide a whole lot of confidence. In an extremely weak free agent class and the best starting pitcher now off the market (a soon to be 37 year old Rich Hill), the only way to upgrade a mediocre starting rotation in 2017 is via trade. However, as everyone knows, the Orioles do not have the prospects to deal for a difference maker (Chance Sisco is not enough to even get a conversation on an ace started), and any subtraction from the major league team to upgrade the rotation would potentially be devastating to their chances to contend next year, which by all accounts they plan on doing. It is one of the reasons that I had advocated for the Orioles to keep all 6 starters when I outlined my 2017 blueprint for the team a month ago.
Despite the 2017 season being months away from starting, let’s take a look into 2018. There is the distinct (and even likely) possibility that 4 of the 6 possible members of the 2017 rotation will no longer be with the team. Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez will be free agents (though reports surfaced last night that the Orioles and Tillman were working on an extension), while Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley have options ($13 million and $12 million, respectively) that stand a good chance of not getting picked up. If all 4 depart after 2017, the team is left with Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy (someone whose ability to start is still very much uncertain), and unless you count Tyler Wilson as an innings eating 5th starter, absolutely no help coming from the farm system.
Assuming the best case scenario (Bundy and Wilson can both start), the team would need to fill at least 2 starting rotation holes through free agency next offseason, and that doesn’t account for any additional starting pitching depth. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Orioles have $52 million committed in salary right now for the 2018 season, which does not include salary for players making the minimum, (potentially) 7 players who will be eligible for arbitration, and whatever Dylan Bundy stands to make. Some of those arbitration cases will be quite large, as both Manny Machado and Zach Britton will be in their final year. So even though next off-season’s free agent class of starting pitchers is more notable, it may be difficult to sign two average to above average free agent starting pitchers next offseason. In the worst case scenario, they’d have to sign 4, which would be improbable, if not impossible.
This is, of course an extremely long introduction explaining why the Orioles may want to think about doing something now to help ease the task of filling out the 2018 rotation. Based on the current market for starting pitching, there may be more of a trade market for Gallardo, Jimenez, and Miley than initially thought, and if that is the case, it may be worth looking into trading one of those players now and signing a free agent starter to a multi-year deal, giving the team one more body in the 2018 rotation it didn’t have before. However, I am not sure I share that opinion to the same degree, and despite the negatives, I like the depth of the Orioles rotation heading into 2017 (especially considering the lack of available upgrades), and as stated above, would prefer they keep it that way.
If you take everything I have mentioned so far and combine it with the assumed 2017 payroll limitations, along with the fact that the Orioles have other needs, there are not a lot of options that would be ideal. There are various routes the Orioles could take here, but one of the more obvious options would be recently released right hander Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi is coming off a season in which he produced a 4.76 ERA, 4.98 FIP, and was worth 0.7 fWAR in 124.2 innings pitching for the New York Yankees. His season ended in August when he required surgery for a torn flexor tendon and a partially torn UCL. While his 2016 season was underwhelming, especially in light of his significant injury, Eovaldi is a pitcher who has averaged 2.5 fWAR for every 200 innings pitched over his career. Eovaldi is by no means an ace, but when healthy he can be a decent starting pitcher who can provide quality, if unspectacular innings.
While his recent injury and subsequent rehab produces a lot of uncertainty in a potential deal, it could also be an opportunity for the Orioles. The injury will prevent him from playing in the 2017 season, but it will also greatly reduce his contract demands. Furthermore, Eovaldi will still only be 28 years old when he’s healthy enough to return to the mound. As stated above, the Orioles don’t need him in 2017, but could absolutely use him in 2018. Unless Eovaldi prefers to rehab on his own and look to sign next offseason (which some players do), a 2-year contract with a low base salary coupled with playing time incentives in year two is a good gamble for both team and player to make given Baltimore’s current roster construction.
Regardless of how the 2017 season goes, Baltimore could use a (presumably) healthy Eovaldi in the 2018 starting rotation. Even if the team doesn’t perform up to expectations and starts selling its assets over the next year, they are going to need starters to replace the approximately 400-800 innings they’ll lose in the starting rotation, which is something that is difficult to do in the span of one offseason. The Orioles are in a unique position to allow Eovaldi to spend the entire 2017 season rehabbing, which will give him a greater chance to return as a league average starter in 2018 who can either help the Orioles on the field or in a trade. League average starting pitchers have a lot of value to a major league team, and after years of winning with nothing more than “average” starting pitchers, Baltimore knows just how valuable they can be.