(Updated: 10:30 p.m.)
BALTIMORE — The Orioles clearly want starting pitching help.
We can certainly debate to what degree they need more starting pitching as Baltimore entered Monday holding the best record in the American League despite a 4.91 rotation ERA ranking 24th in the majors.
But we should be realistic about this final week leading up to Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline. There isn’t much out there, plenty of contenders are looking for starters, and the Orioles have few commodities to give up unless they’re planning to surrender impact talent from their current roster, which doesn’t sound all that appealing when you’re trying to improve.
These realities don’t excuse the Orioles, who knew they had rotation problems entering the offseason before letting their 2015 ace, Wei-Yin Chen, depart via free agency and replacing him with Yovani Gallardo, who’s dealt with shoulder issues that were first flagged during his February physical and eventually landed him on the disabled list in April after only four starts. The options may not have been plentiful this winter, but no one can say the Orioles’ Achilles heel is remotely surprising a few months later.
There just isn’t a whole lot to be done about it right now.
“We’re going to try to add to our rotation,” executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said over the weekend. “We need some more consistency from the guys we have here, and we’re going to try to add to it via the trade route. This is a really thin market. There’s a lot of teams chasing a few pitchers. It’s about as thin as I’ve ever seen the market, but we’re going to see what we can do.”
It remains to be seen whether Duquette can deliver a starter who represents a marked upgrade over what the Orioles already have — forgive me if I’m not doing cartwheels over the likes of San Diego’s Andrew Cashner — but the executive was right about the need to find some improvement from within. That’s what has made the start of the second half uplifting for Baltimore.
In their first 10 games since the All-Star break, the Orioles have posted a 3.03 starter ERA after a robust 5.15 mark in the season’s first 87 contests. It’s a very small sample that includes seven games against two light-hitting clubs — Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees — but six starts of six or more innings have allowed manager Buck Showalter to rest a little easier of late.
The rotation isn’t fixed, but you’ll take any positives you can find after the first half.
Arguably the club’s most valuable player behind Manny Machado, ace Chris Tillman has rebounded from a rocky June with four straight starts in which he’s lasted seven innings and allowed only one run to lower his season ERA to a tidy 3.18. Kevin Gausman has also elevated his performance as the No. 2 starter, surrendering two runs and striking out 13 over his two starts covering 13 1/3 innings since the break.
After signing him to a two-year, $22 million contract, the Orioles desperately want to see Gallardo as their true No. 3 starter in a perfect world, but the questions about his ability to pitch deep into games haven’t disappeared despite back-to-back outings last at least 6 2/3 innings. His track record makes provides optimism that he can build on what he’s done over the last week.
But what we witnessed on Friday and Sunday provides some hope beyond the clearly-defined top two and Gallardo in the rotation. These names aren’t definitive rotation answers, but we’ll call them “maybes” for right now.
Facing a Cleveland offense currently ranking third in the AL — and ahead of the Orioles — in runs scored, Dylan Bundy allowed only one unearned run in five strong innings in the series-opening win. You can’t cross your fingers any harder that the 23-year-old will stay healthy and that the Orioles will take care of him as they stretched him out from 70 pitches in his first start to 87 on Friday night, but the ability is undeniable and his season results have been better than anyone could have expected entering 2016. What we don’t know is how the organization will handle his workload to keep him in play as a contributor in September and October, but he’s been fun to watch.
Veteran Vance Worley provided the other shot in the arm on Sunday by allowing just two runs over seven innings as the Orioles completed the series sweep over the AL Central-leading Indians. In a perfect world, Worley would have remained in his role as an effective long man, but he owns a respectable 3.89 mark as a starter in his career. After seeing the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and Mike Wright struggle with extensive opportunities in the first half, the Orioles had few choices but to go with Worley, who received little more than a cameo as a starter in April before moving to the bullpen.
At least for the time being, Bundy and Worley have done enough to continue giving them the ball for the time being. The Orioles rotation isn’t magically going to transform into a top five group, but rising to even the middle of the pack in the AL in the second half would go a long way in complementing a powerful offense and a bullpen back to full strength with the return of Darren O’Day.
Finding that kind of improvement would be much easier if Duquette can somehow find another viable arm to slot into the rotation, but the start of the second half has brought some encouragement.