Before anyone goes off the deep end over the Orioles’ 3-4 start to the 2013 season, consider this your much-needed reminder that it’s early.
It’s very early, in fact, as Baltimore has completed just over four percent of the 162-game schedule. That’s the equivalent of the Ravens approaching the end of the third quarter of their season-opening game if you needed a football comparison to put it in the proper context.
But issues have already begun to arise, specifically with the injuries to Wilson Betemit, Nolan Reimold, and Brian Roberts that have left designated hitter and second base as early albatrosses in the lineup. Ryan Flaherty is 0-for-14 to begin the season and Steve Pearce has yet to collect a hit in his first 10 at-bats after securing the final spot on the 25-man roster at the end of spring training.
Fortunately in Reimold’s case, the Orioles are hoping the 29-year-old outfielder will be ready to return to the lineup as early as Wednesday after leaving Sunday’s game with a tight hamstring.
The bullpen experienced a hiccup against Tampa Bay and a Chris Davis error contributed to Jim Johnson taking the loss in Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, but there’s little other evidence to suggest the group won’t be up to the task this season. It just might not be as dominating as it was a year ago with a plethora of relievers pitching at their absolute best for the better portion of six months.
After going 29-9 in one-run games last year, the Orioles have dropped their first three contests decided by one run, but no one could have reasonably expected the club to repeat that type of a historically-efficient performance.
The biggest concern – again, based on a week’s worth of games – has been the starting pitching with both the numbers and, more importantly, the eyeball test. Though Wei-Yin Chen pitched well in a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox on Monday, the Orioles entered Tuesday ranked last in the American League in starters earned run average at 5.45.
Of the seven outings turned in by the starting five, only three have been quality starts (if you subscribe to the minimum requirements of six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed being anything special). The numbers don’t mean much when you’re not even through the rotation a second time, but the eyeball test raises bigger concerns.
De facto ace Jason Hammel is struggling to command both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a deadly combination that baffled opposing hitters prior to the knee injury that largely derailed his 2012 season. He hasn’t looked like the dominating pitcher he was in the first half last season and his lower strikeout numbers (five in 12 2/3 innings pitched) confirm that.
The Orioles need Hammel to be the veteran standing at the front of the rotation and not just another pitcher in the starting mix.
Chen’s 3.75 ERA is perfectly acceptable, but the same issue of running out of gas right around the 85-to-90 pitch range that we saw last year has resurfaced in his first two starts. Entering the seventh inning having thrown 87 pitches on Monday, Chen gave up a three-run homer to Daniel Nava before departing with one out.
Many will criticize Buck Showalter for not pulling the Taiwanese lefty sooner, but the manager likely wants to see if Chen can add another gear for the late innings or whether this is as good as it gets for the 27-year-old. Entering Monday, Chen had pitched to a 7.42 ERA after the sixth inning in his major league career. If that’s the best the club can expect when the lefty approaches 90 pitches and beyond, it’s difficult to view Chen as anything better than a fourth starter for the long haul.
Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez appeared the best of any starter the first turn through the rotation, but Showalter has elected to push the 28-year-old’s next start back to the Yankees series, citing a desire to give him a few extra days of rest. That action sounds prudent in August and September, but it raises a red flag this early in the season despite the manager insisting there are no health concerns with Gonzalez.
If making a start every fifth day is a challenge already, you have to wonder how much the Orioles can expect from Gonzalez over an entire season.
Jake Arrieta? He looked very much like the same Arrieta we’ve seen in past seasons on Friday, pitching well in spurts but allowing a four-run fourth inning to derail his overall outing. It’s the same inconsistency that landed him out of the rotation and in the minor leagues midway through last season.
The 27-year-old power arm figures to have the shortest leash of any of the current starters.
Coming off the 15-day disabled list to make his first start against Minnesota on Saturday, Chris Tillman was all over the place and looked nothing like the successful pitcher we saw in the second half of last season in allowing five earned runs and walking four in 3 2/3 innings. It was one start, but it won’t quiet those who question whether the 24-year-old’s 2012 campaign was more fluke than transformation.
It’s a very small sample size — just like this piece is one of many that will examine the various stages of the season – but these seven games will count as much as any seven-game stretch over the course of the year. It’s not a definitive indictment or a final verdict by any stretch of the imagination but rather an honest assessment of what we’ve seen so far.
The injuries and shortcomings in the lineup and questions of how closely the bullpen can match its 2012 performance are all manageable concerns if the starting rotation rises to the occasion like it did for the final two months last season. Showalter said countless times this spring that the Orioles will only go as far as their starting pitching will take them.
And with the club sporting a 3-4 record in the first week of the season, the very early return in that department has been underwhelming.