BALTIMORE — Through some combination of good fortune, good genes and perhaps good preventive medical care, the Baltimore Orioles pulled off something bordering on miraculous in 2017. In this era of ligament-straining torque and elbow-surgery epidemics, the Orioles had only one starting pitcher all season miss a start due to injury. By comparison, the Houston Astros, just to name one playoff-bound competitor, have put five starters on the disabled list for a total of seven times this season.
Teams that enjoy such a golden run of rotation health as the Orioles have in 2017 typically do amazing things — for example, the 2016 Chicago Cubs, who saw all five starting pitchers make at least 29 starts as the team marched all the way to the World Series title.
But with the 2017 Orioles, the typical equation was flipped. It wasn’t that they were blessed with continued health for a group of stellar pitchers they cultivated, nurtured and rode to glory. Instead, they stuck with a group of underperforming and ineffective (but healthy!) duds for an entire season — because they simply didn’t have any better options.
On their way to what is likely to be the franchise’s first losing season since 2011, this year’s Orioles (73-80 through Wednesday) gave 31 starts to Wade Miley, 24 to Ubaldo Jimenez and 18 to Chris Tillman — the only member of the rotation to lose time to the disabled list in 2017. At the trade deadline, they acquired Jeremy Hellickson from Philadelphia — a curious move given Hellickson’s mediocrity in the relatively weak NL East — and sent him to the mound nine times.
How has that worked out? Among pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings this season, Tillman’s 8.08 ERA as a starter ranked as the worst in baseball through Wednesday — by more than a full run — with Jimenez, at 6.93, the second-worst, and Miley (5.52) also ranking in the bottom 15. Hellickson, meanwhile, has posted a 7.29 ERA in his nine starts as an Oriole, covering 45 2/3 innings.
As a result, even with Dylan Bundy putting together a solid season and Kevin Gausman having a strong second half, Orioles starters collectively have posted not only the worst ERA in baseball this season (5.64), but the worst in baseball by any team in the past five years, and the worst in Orioles history.
“Our formula has always been to have decent starters and then have a strong bullpen, good defense and a good offensive team. We have all those other ingredients,” General Manager Dan Duquette said. “But our starters didn’t perform anywhere near the levels they have established for themselves throughout their careers, with the exception of Bundy.”
Considered a fringe contender this season after earning an American League wild card in 2016, the Orioles went 15-8 in April, were within five games of the AL East as recently as June 29 and were above .500 as recently as Sept. 8, before a 2-8 road trip — part of a current stretch in which, through Wednesday, they have dropped 12 of 14 — effectively ended their playoff hopes.
And while there are other culprits behind the Orioles’ disappointing season — including significant drop-offs in production from sluggers Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis, an arm injury for closer Zach Britton and a painfully slow start from franchise cornerstone Manny Machado — it is only a slight oversimplification to say the Orioles fell short in 2017 because they didn’t have enough starting pitching.
“You can’t pin it on any one person or any one group,” Britton said. “But it’s hard to compete day in and day out when you’re not getting the pitching you need. Yeah, we’ve had some injuries, and some guys haven’t performed up to their capabilities, but when you have solid pitching it takes the pressure off everyone else to be at the top of their game every day.”
While many critics were sounding the alarm about the Orioles’ thin starting pitching as far back as spring training — and many believed the Orioles should have dealt coveted trade pieces such as Britton and/or reliever Brad Brach for young pitchers at the July 31 trade deadline — the more pertinent question for the franchise isn’t what happened in 2017, but what should and will happen next.
The answer is complicated, but it comes back to one sobering reality facing the franchise: the Orioles don’t have any impactful, major-league-ready starters knocking on the door at Class AA or Class AAA; they have historically lacked either the resources or the willingness to sign any of the top free agents (the best of whom this winter will be Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish and depending upon whether they exercise opt-outs, Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanaka); and they don’t have a deep enough farm system to pull off a trade for a front-line starter, the way division rival Boston did last winter for left-handed ace Chris Sale.
“There’s no question we’re going to have to come up with starting pitching in order to be competitive,” Duquette said. “We’re in the most competitive division in baseball. We play the New York Yankees 19 times and the Boston Red Sox 19 times. Over the years we’ve been able to compete with those clubs, although we have far fewer resources available in our market, and we aim to field another competitive team in 2018.”
But that lack of resources — both in terms of money and tradeable prospects — leaves the Orioles pretty much where they have been for the last half-dozen or so years: left to scrounge for bargains and leftovers on the offseason talent marketplace. The largest free-agent pitching contract the team has ever signed was the four-year, $50 million deal they gave Jimenez in February 2014, for which they have received a 32-41 record and a 5.16 ERA.
There is only one way, Manager Buck Showalter said, to alter the franchise’s fortunes.
“We have to produce our own pitchers,” Showalter said. “We can’t go out and buy them the way other teams can. We can’t do that. We’re in one of the smallest markets in baseball, so we have to produce our own. If we don’t produce our own, or [the ones we have] get hurt, we have a problem.”
At least theoretically, the Orioles have the opportunity to remake their rotation for 2018 behind holdovers Bundy and Gausman, both homegrown talents who had breakthroughs in 2016.
Tillman, Jimenez and Hellickson are all pending free agents, and the team holds a 2018 option, at $12 million, for Miley. But Tillman is a solid candidate to re-sign with the Orioles this winter on a one-year deal to try to build his value back up, and given where the free agent market has been heading, $12 million is almost the going rate for a veteran, left-handed No. 3 or No. 4 starter such as Miley; the Orioles might just pick up his option and hope he rebounds.
Duquette touted some other intriguing internal candidates for the 2018 rotation: 22-year-old right-hander Miguel Castro, an April waiver claim who had a successful 2017 season in the Orioles bullpen; 24-year-old right-hander Gabriel Ynoa, who showed some promise in two September starts; and Yefry Ramirez, a 23-year-old right-hander, acquired in July, who went 15-3 with a 3.47 ERA in Class AA (split between the Yankees and Orioles organizations). But none have the pedigrees or track records to be considered impactful starters any time soon.
“Our job will be to find some capable starting pitching,” Duquette acknowledged. “Our people have to go to work and find some.”
While many expected the Orioles to be sellers at this year’s trade deadline — and they did explore some serious trade scenarios involving Britton, among others — they wound up being surprise buyers instead, adding not only Hellickson, but also Tim Beckham from the Tampa Bay Rays, who appears to have solved their need for an everyday shortstop to replace departing veteran J.J. Hardy.
But they also wasted a prime chance to turn some of their tradeable assets, such as Britton and Brach, into future rotation candidates at Camden Yards.
At the time, the decision was spun as a bet the Orioles were placing on their own players — that this group could contend the rest of this season and again in 2018. But 2017 will end in disappointment, and 2018 will mark the close of what is widely considered to be the Orioles’ current championship window. After 2018, their list of free agents will include not only Britton, but also veteran center fielder Adam Jones, the soul of their team, and Machado, their best position player since Cal Ripken. (Duquette and Showalter, as well, are currently on contracts that run only through 2018.)
“There’s a couple of different ways [the front office] could go,” said Britton, now just a little more than a year away from free agency, making clear he would like to see the organization spend big to remedy its lack of starting pitching. “It’s pretty clear what we need. It’s just a matter of how much we’re going to do to address it. I’m as interested as anybody to see what happens.”