*I completed this post yesterday, just minutes prior to it being reported that RHP Ubaldo Jimenez had reached an agreement to sign with Baltimore. The terms of the deal can be found here. Unfortunately with a politics paper to research, I’ve been unable to update the Orioles preview accordingly. It is however, still my hope that Kevin Gausman still makes the team out of Spring Training.*
Halfway! Yesterday in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series I capped off my coverage of the NL with a look at the most recent addition to Washington’s fearsome rotation – Doug Fister – and failed to wrap my head around what the Tigers got in return. From the National’s heralded set of starters then, to a team whose starting pitching depth currently only sits 80% full; as the opening team of my AL portion of the preview, the Baltimore Orioles have some serious questions to answer concerning their lack of a starting five (or a DH, or 2B, or LF). Fortunately for them, they also have Kevin Gausman.
After an 85-77 2013 campaign, the Baltimore Orioles had some pressing needs to address this offseason if they were to return to the postseason party that they had crashed so enchantingly in 2012; after winning the O’s left field job, Nate McLouth was signed by the Nationals; Brian Roberts – whom Baltimore had desperately clung to for years in the hope of him eventually returning to fill the void at 2B – skipped town to play in pinstripes, leaving his position vacant too; the perennially open DH slot (which had garnered only 0.4 WAR for the season) again was in need of a (preferably able) warm body to fill it; Closer Jim Johnson was lured away to the A’s, which in turn led to the Grant Balfour fiasco and evtually left Tommy Hunter slated to finish games. Then there was the starting pitching issue. Orioles starters ranked near the bottom of the majors in ERA (27th), innings pitched (22nd) and strikeouts (24th) in 2013, making upgrading the rotation the biggest need over the winter if the Birds were serious about 2014.
But when Baltimore opened Spring Training in Sarasota, FL, last week, having had the whole offseason in which to take care of business and right the ship, the gaping holes largely remained – none of which were more evident than the lack of a fifth starter.
No other team in the majors has a depth chart which lists only four starting pitchers. That the quartet includes names such as Bud Norris, Wei-Jin Chen, and Miguel Gonzalez too, is hardly likely to strike fear in the hitters of the AL East. AJ Burnett, Bronson Arroyo, and Matt Garza were all linked with Baltimore at some point, but whether it be Peter Angelos, Baltimore’s infamous physicals, or hitter-friendly Camden Yards, none put pen to paper on a contract. With no movement on either Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana (both of whom command draft pick compensation), it now appears that Baltimore will have to fill their remaining rotation position with a player already in their organization. Fortunately, they have Kevin Gausman.
The fourth overall selection of the 2012 amateur draft, Gausman projects as a future ace, despite a rough start to his major-league career. Called up by the Orioles last May after burning through Double A ball for a month and half (9.8K/BB!), the lanky flamethrower struggled mightily in his first experience as a starter in the big leagues – throwing 24.2 IP with a 7.66 ERA and 1.62 WHIP, with a truly horrific 2.55 HR/9 before being moved into a bullpen role. There he fared much better; in 23 IP in relief, Gausman lowered both his ERA (3.52) and WHIP (1.04), while jacking his K% up to 31.9. Most significantly however, he limited the home runs which plagued his work as a starter to just 0.39 per nine innings, suggesting that early struggles were perhaps more a momentary blip in control than anything serious to worry about (it didn’t help that he faced Detroit, Toronto, and Boston in that 5 start span).
Even considering his uneven start, Orioles fans could do much worse than having Gausman break camp as their fifth starter. Alternative in-house options include lefties Zach Britton, T.J. McFarland and Brian Matusz, along with right-handers Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson, Liam Hendriks; none of which would have any dramatic impact on the club’s chances. Gausman on the other hand, has the potential to be this year’s Matt Harvey. Even after his baptism of fire, the scouts still love him; the most recent Fangraphs analysis concluding “Gausman’s rough introduction to The Show in 2013 should not cause anyone to doubt his future. He still has the talent to develop into a No. 2 starter at the big league level.” If there was anything to glean from his 2013, it was that the Orioles had clearly called the LSU product up too soon; it’s worth remembering that Gausman had still less than a full year of professional experience when he made his debut. After an offseason spent adding 12 pounds to his frame (#Musclewatch!), and further refining of his awesome raw stuff, Gausman apparently has rebounding on his mind already, as he strives to become the innings-eating power pitcher the scouts envision.
Adding Gausman to that fifth spot should bring other benefits to the O’s too; aside from deploying his formidable services every fifth day, Baltimore is saving money. Rather than paying either the aforementioned Santana or Jimenez, the Orioles can use their spare change elsewhere – say, on a DH type like Kendrys Morales – to further improve their squad, in the same way Russell Wilson’s cheap deal allowed the Seahawks to grab Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Of course, that’s if penny-pinching owner Peter Angelos chooses to. He’s leaving it late either way. With Gausman however, there is hope for O’s fans; there may not be a impact free-agent coming to town anytime soon, but their young righty at the very least has the electric stuff to brighten what has otherwise (so far) been a dark offseason in Baltimore. And if everything breaks right, propel Baltimore back into AL East contention.