Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette views his club’s 2017 collapse pretty clearly.
He believed his veteran-heavy rotation heading into the season would be good enough to at least supplement a stout bullpen and a solid offense for another postseason run.
Instead, the rotation crumbled on its way to the worst starters’ ERA in modern franchise history, and the Orioles, as a team, secured a losing season for the first time since 2011, the year before Duquette took over the personnel reins.
“I think everybody had great expectations for the team and we got off to a strong (22-10) start,” Duquette said during a lengthy, season-summary interview with BaltimoreBaseball.com last week. “We were in first place at the quarter pole. Over the course of the season, we didn’t really have the starting pitching to maintain that consistency. But I like our team overall.”
Duquette points to the steps forward made by several individuals this season, specifically Jonathan Schoop, Trey Mancini, Dylan Bundy and Tim Beckham, as well as the late-season promotions and performances of top prospects Austin Hays and Chance Sisco. The problem, however, is that Bundy is the only pitcher among that group.
Rotation’s woes; lack of quality depth
And while the 24-year-old emerged as the most consistent member of the club’s rotation, Bundy (13-9, 4.24 ERA) is the only one that posted an ERA below 4.50. Kevin Gausman, who makes his final start of the season Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, was supposed to be the team’s emerging ace. But a disastrous first half (5.85 ERA in 19 starts) torpedoed his overall numbers (11-10, 4.61 ERA in 32 starts) despite a strong second half (6-3, 3.09 ERA in 13 starts).
Chris Tillman, the club’s most dependable starter during Duquette’s tenure, was shelved by a shoulder injury in the spring, and never reclaimed his old form when he returned, posting an ugly 7.71 ERA – more than three runs higher than his career mark – in 23 outings.
Duquette was expecting veterans Ubaldo Jimenez (6-11, 6.81 ERA in 31 games) and Wade Miley (8-14, 5.52 ERA in 31 starts) to build on the relative success they had at the end of the 2016 season, but instead they regressed further. Add in Duquette’s July pitching acquisition of Jeremy Hellickson, who was 2-6 with a 6.97 ERA in 10 starts with the Orioles after being traded from the Philadelphia Phillies, and the rotation’s combined ERA currently sits at 5.65, higher than the franchise’s worst mark of 5.51 set in 2008.
Perhaps the primary criticism of Duquette’s work in building the rotation this year is that he did not have any true upgrades in the minors to take over in case the expectations didn’t come to fruition for his projected rotation. Alec Asher, Gabriel Ynoa, Jayson Aquino and Tyler Wilson all made starts for the Orioles this year, with Ynoa providing the most hope that he could be a usable member of the 2018 rotation.
Aquino and Wilson were both removed from the 40-man roster this year and outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk; meanwhile the Orioles lost Parker Bridwell to waivers in April and the rookie right-hander has gone 8-3 with a 3.86 ERA in 19 games (18 starts) for the Los Angeles Angels, further highlighting the Orioles’ inability to construct a competent 2017 rotation.
Depth, Duquette says, wasn’t the issue; depending on pitchers with track records that failed was.
“You can have all the depth you want, but when the guys that you are counting on with your starting pitching don’t come through, there’s not a lot of options for the club. And we were depending on Tillman to give us some quality innings. We were hoping that Jimenez would give us some quality innings, and Miley. And those are three of our five starters,” Duquette said.
“Even Gausman didn’t pitch — the first half of the season — like he’s capable of, like he did in the second half of the season. So, other than Dylan Bundy, who had a terrific year, there’s no major league team in the business that’s going to withstand three of their starters not pitching up to the level that they established for themselves. It’s just not happening.”
It’s a fair point. That, though, was 2017. What happens in preparation for 2018?
Building next year’s group
Only Gausman and Bundy are expected back. Jimenez, Hellickson, Miley and Tillman are all pending free agents (the club holds a $12 million option on Miley, but is expected to exercise the contract’s $500,000 buyout).
Ynoa, Miguel Castro, who pitched well in long relief this season, and the soon-to-be out-of-options Mike Wright, among others, likely will get a chance to compete for a rotation spot in March. But, even if one of those captures the fifth-starter’s role, the Orioles still need at least two viable starters for next year’s rotation, and preferably ones with significant big league experience – and success.
“We’re going to upgrade it. We are going to rebuild it,” Duquette said of the rotation. “I’m sure we’ll find some pretty good starting pitching for next year and we’ll be able to improve our rotation.”
What’s concerning is that there is no obvious avenue, at this moment, that would seemingly lead quality pitching to Camden Yards for next year.
First, just about every team in baseball needs a rotation boost, so the competition for available arms is stiff. Based on the reputation of Camden Yards as a hitters’ park, for the Orioles to land a free agent starter of some pedigree, they’ll likely have to overpay. And since ownership has eschewed giving out extended, long-term contracts to free-agent pitchers – which, in fairness, rarely turn out as good investments, industry-wide – it’s highly unlikely the club lands a top-of-the-rotation starter this winter.
Secondly, this year’s free-agent pitching class is average at best (although better than year’s). The only true “aces” available are Los Angeles Dodgers’ 31-year-old right-hander Yu Darvish and former Oriole Jake Arrieta, now with the Chicago Cubs, and potentially Masahiro Tanaka, if he opts out of his long-term deal with the New York Yankees (and if he truly is an ace).
There are some other intriguing possibilities, but all have warts, whether it’s past injuries (Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Andrew Cashner) or age (Jason Vargas, CC Sabathia) or recent ineffectiveness (Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Miguel Gonzalez, Tillman).
Then there’s the preferred concept of building your own ace. Both Gausman and Bundy are former top draft picks and homegrown successes, and Duquette and company are excited about some promising minor league pitchers such as Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott and Alex Wells.
Still, the Orioles’ current farm system is void of someone to be counted on to make the jump directly from the minors to the rotation for the early part of 2018. And though the organizational depth appears to be improving, it’s not flushed with top prospects that could be traded to land a Chris Sale type. like the Boston Red Sox were able to do last winter or what the Houston Astros accomplished in August for Justin Verlander.
Still, Duquette is undaunted in his pursuit of improving the rotation. He’s been here before, he says, and it worked out. It will again, he believes.
“I don’t know where they’re going to come from, but we’ll have some good starting pitching. That was the job in 2012, to go out and find some starting pitching and we were able to sign (Taiwan’s Wei-Yin) Chen and we picked up Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman emerged,” Duquette said. “That really propelled the team from the second division to the first division and then we were able to stay there since — until this year, when our starting pitching failed us.”
To Duquette’s credit, he’s been continually active in searching for rotation help in his tenure in Baltimore, tapping Taiwan, Mexico, Korea, Japan, the MLB free-agent market and orchestrating several trades. He’s landed some helpful pieces and acquired some duds, but an ace has remained elusive.
Holding onto the present, too
His best chance of finding veteran rotation help this winter is through the trade market. But he’s also reluctant to give up big league pieces that are instrumental to a potential playoff run in 2018, when his and Showalter’s contracts expire along with a chunk of the team’s core.
When asked about the future of star third baseman Manny Machado, who is a free agent after next season, Duquette said: “Manny has shown he’s a good player. One of the better players in the league. So (a contract extension is) something that we can visit in the offseason and see if there is an opportunity to extend that relationship.”
When asked if he would deal from his surplus of back-end bullpen arms, specifically closer Zach Britton and/or setup man Brad Brach, both free agents after 2018, Duquette responded: “Probably not. I’m not sure it’s surplus, OK? You see these teams that come in here (with deep bullpens) that we just played. The one from New York and the one from Boston. You think we have surplus?”
If the Orioles have a surplus commodity, and it’s not in the bullpen, it likely would be power. But given the enormity of Chris Davis’ contract and the youth and upside of Mancini, Schoop, Sisco and Hays, perhaps the most likely Oriole to be dealt this winter is designated hitter/outfielder Mark Trumbo, who has two years and roughly $26 million left on the contract he signed last winter.
Any trade involving Trumbo, whose power output was halved this season, would probably require the Orioles to take on another hefty contract (like a high-priced starting pitcher who has underachieved) in return.
The other burning question is whether the Orioles will retain the services of Showalter’s coaching staff and, specifically, first-year pitching coach Roger McDowell, who had sustained success in the same role in Atlanta before shepherding the 2017 rotation disaster in Baltimore.
“I think those are all things that you can take a look at in the offseason and see what you’ve got to do to restock your team for the coming season,” Duquette said, not addressing McDowell by name. “So, I think every team has to do that, and that’s a healthy process.”
As for his own job security, Duquette didn’t answer the question directly, but when asked whether he was confident he’d get the opportunity to build the 2018 roster, he said, “Oh yeah. I mean to field another competitive team? Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Frankly, given what the Orioles were when Duquette arrived, and what they’ve done since – 2017 as the exception – it would seem unfair to move on from him after one losing season.
The bottom line here is it’s pretty obvious what’s at stake in 2018 and what the Orioles have to do to be a legitimate playoff team. But finding starting pitchers that can properly and consistently elevate this rotation – given all of the factors previously detailed – is a significant challenge.
The ‘what’ is easy; the ‘how’ is the puzzler.
“That’s a good question for Dan. I’m gonna manage the people that get here and try to make them as good as we can make them,” Showalter said Sunday about how to rebuild the rotation. “I’ve got (five) games (remaining in 2017). It’s important. A lot of the things, those opportunities to see things, find out things, are gonna be gone here shortly. Then you’re gonna have to sit back and do all those things. I’m sure Dan’s given it some thought.
“But we’ve got some work to do.”