Let’s get the obvious statement out of the way first: There’s never a good time to lose your No. 1 starter. That said, the Orioles’ April schedule could work to their advantage when it comes to filling the shoes of sidelined ace Chris Tillman.
The opening month is littered with off days, which can allow the O’s to map out their rotation with a short staff. As manager Buck Showalter has frequently mentioned, the Orioles don’t need a fifth starter until April 15, the tenth game of the regular season.
In fact, the favorable spread of off days requires the club to use a fifth starter only twice in the month of April, spanning the first 23 games of the year.
So, if the Orioles aren’t able to pick up an extra starter on the now-thin free agent market, they’re not necessarily doomed. Even if Tillman isn’t ready until the end of April, the club can potentially soldier through the month with its four, currently healthy starters, while needing just a pair of spot starts along the way.
Expect Showalter and Dan Duquette to take full advantage of the Orioles’ roster flexibility during that stretch. The shuttle between Baltimore and Norfolk — and sometimes Bowie — could be churning on overdrive in April as they shuffle spot starters, long relievers and extra bench players on and off the roster as needed.
Here’s one example of how it could play out:
When the Orioles set their Opening Day roster for April 3, they could include just four starters — Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley — and seven relievers. That would make room for a 14th position player, which could help Rule 5 pick Aneury Tavarez’s chances of making the club.
On April 15, the Orioles would need to make a roster move — likely dispatching a bench player — to add a starter. They could call on one of Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Logan Verrett or Gabriel Ynoa to start that day. All four have options, so whichever one they choose, he could be sent right back to the minors after the game in exchange for another bench player or reliever.
The Orioles would need a spot starter one week later, April 22. Again, they could call on one of the minor-league arms to fill in for the outing, then return him to the minors afterwards and add a reinforcement for the bench or bullpen.
From there, they have another 10 days until they need a fifth starter again May 2. By that time, Tillman ideally will be ready to return (if he hasn’t already), and the rotation will be back at full strength.
Granted, we’re still a month and a half away from the start of the regular season, so the Orioles shouldn’t etch any plans into stone just yet. They could add a veteran starting pitcher such as Jorge De La Rosa or Doug Fister and stick with a conventional five-man rotation during Tillman’s absence.
Or Tillman — who told reporters this week that his shoulder is starting to feel much better — could be healthy and ready to pitch by early April. Or one of the Orioles’ other four starters could get hurt before Opening Day, throwing the rotation into further chaos.
Still, as things stand now, the club has a way to cover its bases for up to a month while Tillman is on the shelf — if it gets a little bit creative.