Three years ago today, on June 5, 2013, the Orioles found themselves in third place in the American League East, trailing the Boston Red Sox by 2 1/2 games. They had a powerful offense that was out-slugging opponents often enough to be seven games over .500. They had an outstanding defense and solid bullpen. But they also had a starting pitching problem, with two spots in the rotation cycling through the likes of Freddy Garcia, Jason Hammel, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and Kevin Gausman without capable results (those five pitchers combined for a 5.74 ERA in 269 2/3 innings as starters for the 2013 O’s).
It should, because the 2016 club enters June in a remarkably similar position. The power is there. So is the defense and shutdown bullpen. But the starting rotation is in the same precarious spot, lacking enough quality options after Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman to provide separation in the standings.
Where the Orioles go from here is the question. What we already know is what they did in 2013 (SPOILER ALERT: You may want to shield your eyes if you’ve somehow forgotten).
On July 2, Arrieta and reliever Pedro Strop were dealt to the Chicago Cubs for Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman, a pending free agent who posted a 4.27 ERA in the O’s rotation and signed with the Houston Astros after the season. And, at the July 31 trade deadline, Bud Norris was acquired from those same Astros for minor-leaguer Josh Hader, outfielder L.J. Hoes and a draft pick (37th overall). Norris delivered a 4.69 ERA as a starter down the stretch in 2013, won 15 regular-season games and another in the playoffs in 2014, and was disastrous the following season before being released.
Baltimore missed the playoffs in 2013, finishing with 85 wins and a tied-for-third-place finish with the Yankees. Feldman was serviceable, Norris was less than that, and neither moved the needle enough for a team trying to improve its rotation on the fly.
The cost of this attempt to patch the rotation three years ago has turned out to be, well, pretty costly. We all know about Arrieta’s dominance with the Cubs and his Cy Young Award. You’ve probably heard of Hader’s status as one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in the minor leagues (he’s currently sporting a 0.88 ERA in 51 AA-innings in the Brewers’ system). And, of course, a top-40 draft pick certainly wouldn’t have hurt an O’s farm system that is now ranked – by most publications – among the few worst in the game.
But it’s easy to see why the Orioles did what they did that summer. Coming off of their first playoff (and winning) season in 14 years and again in the hunt, Dan Duquette and company were trying to add a few extra pieces to push the team back into postseason play. And while Feldman was a rental, Norris was controlled for two-plus seasons, over which the O’s hoped he would be a consistently-solid member of their rotation (and he was the following year). Arrieta and Strop had struggled mightily in 46 combined innings, and Hader, while promising, was pitching for Single-A Delmarva.
These two trades clearly didn’t work out as the Orioles’ brass would’ve hoped, though. And the question that now arises is whether similar moves should be made over the next two months if the team’s current starting pitching problems persist. Maybe the situation will end up being moot. Maybe Yovani Gallardo comes back from his shoulder soreness and pitches well. Maybe Ubaldo Jimenez throws more like he did in the first five innings of Thursday’s game against the Red Sox than he did in the sixth. Maybe AAA depth like Odrisamer Despaigne rises to the majors and contributes.
But if not, the club will have to answer this: Are more midseason starting pitching acquisitions, likely of the rental and average-at-best variety, worth surrendering another round of young players? Can waiver wire or AAA-types of the Despaigne/Vance Worley variety (Tommy Milone, anyone?) produce similar-enough results over a half-season’s worth of play, and at a fraction of the cost? Or does the prospect of another postseason berth continue to outweigh the cost and potential risks of trading prospects for serviceable veterans?
These same decisions from three years ago could soon be on the horizon once again for the Orioles.