Nearly two months into the 2014 season, the similarities are there between this year’s Orioles and the 2012 club that broke a streak of 14 straight losing seasons and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Contributions from unexpected heroes, a 5-1 record in extra-inning games, an 11-6 mark in one-run contests, and an ability to overcome a slew of injuries to this point are all themes reminiscent of two years ago. A bullpen that ranks fifth in the American League in earned run average and now appears stabilized — knock on wood — with Zach Britton stepping into the closer role appears to be emerging as a strength for manager Buck Showalter.
But another similarity to 2012 doesn’t make one feel inclined to print the playoff tickets just yet as the Orioles currently rank 11th in the American League in starter earned run average and tied for 13th in innings pitched by starters entering play on Tuesday. Two years ago, the Orioles ranked ninth in starter ERA and starter innings, but that improved ranking only came after substantial improvement in which they had the fifth-best ERA in the AL in the second half.
Of course, it didn’t take a shrewd prognosticator to anticipate struggles with the starting pitching this season, but the current state of the rotation still has an upside-down feel to it. Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez occupied the top two spots in the Opening Day rotation and have been the weakest — or, at least, the most frustrating — links through the first two months of the season. Jimenez’s inconsistency shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s paid close attention to his career and his unorthodox mechanics, but Tillman’s struggles after his first three starts of the season in which he posted a 0.84 ERA have become very alarming.
In his last eight starts, the 2013 All-Star selection has posted a 6.64 ERA, and that’s even including a complete-game shutout against Kansas City on May 16. What initially looked like a stretch of simple inconsistency is quickly becoming a long-term concern with Memorial Day now in the rear-view mirror and many fans wondering if the de facto ace is hiding an injury.
The 26-year-old right-hander has maintained he’s fine physically aside from some minor groin tightness a couple weeks back, but his fastball command has failed him, making it difficult to use his other pitches effectively. He’s walked 24 batters in his last 42 innings after walking only three in his first 21 1/3 innings of work in 2014.
Meanwhile, the trio of Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, and Wei-Yin Chen have pitched more effectively despite plenty of clamoring for upgrades to replace any combination of the three earlier this spring. Norris has quietly been the club’s best starter with a 3.83 ERA and has averaged more than six innings per outing, the only member of the rotation to do so.
Fans were screaming for Gonzalez to be removed from the rotation after he allowed 10 earned runs in his first two starts, but the right-hander has posted a strong 3.19 ERA since those horrific outings and has turned in three consecutive quality starts. Chen may cause plenty of nerves once he hits the 90-pitch mark in a given outing, but his 4.08 ERA is acceptable in the AL East.
Despite Norris, Gonzalez, and Chen keeping the rotation afloat while Tillman and Jimenez try to rebound from their poor starts, Showalter and the Orioles clearly need more from the starting pitching. It’s a common theme that played out in 2012 — when Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter occupied the top two spots in the Opening Day rotation — before Tillman and Gonzalez provided second-half shots in the arm to a rotation that improved over the course of a 93-win campaign.
Making changes may prove more complicated this time around as Tillman’s track record suggests Showalter will continue running him to the hill every fifth day — and he probably should for the time being. Of course, there are 50 million reasons why you shouldn’t expect Jimenez’s spot to be in any real jeopardy despite a 4.98 ERA, and you simply hope he discovers one of his customary hot stretches at the right time in what’s been a consistently inconsistent career.
But it’d be difficult to convince anyone that the Orioles will make the postseason with the same five starting pitchers in their rotation all year. Reinforcements will be necessary as they are for any team in any season.
At this point, it appears that 2012 first-round pick Kevin Gausman and veteran reclamation project Johan Santana are the most likely candidates to receive opportunities.
Putting aside an ill-advised call-up to start on three days’ rest earlier this month, Gausman remains the crown jewel of the minor-league system and is still expected to be a contributor for a large portion of the 2014 season. His 2.41 ERA in eight starts at Triple-A Norfolk has kept him on the fast track to Baltimore, but it remains to be seen if his slider has developed enough to make him the kind of pitcher that can go through a lineup three times in a given night.
The most intriguing pitcher to watch over the next couple weeks will be Santana, who appeared to be nothing more than a lottery ticket the Orioles purchased in spring training as he was recovering from a second surgery on his left shoulder. His fastball velocity is now in the high 80s — about where it was with the New York Mets — giving him the desired 10-miles-per-hour difference with his famous changeup that the Orioles feel is necessary to be successful.
The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner completed his final extended spring training start on Monday and has an opt-out clause that can be used at the end of the month, but he’s expected to be assigned to a minor-league affiliate with the potential to receive a shot in the Baltimore rotation in the not-too-distant future. Reports and results from Sarasota have been favorable on the 35-year-old, but there’s no way of knowing whether his health or current stuff will hold up at the major league level.
Even with all the feel-good comparisons to the 2012 Orioles tossed about by media and fans alike, this year’s club knows it needs better starting pitching to stay afloat in what’s been a mediocre AL East this season. Their best hopes are with Tillman or Jimenez — preferably both — to reverse their early-season struggles, but the Orioles will inevitably need to lean on reinforcements because of injuries or ineffectiveness at some point.
Those reinforcements worked in 2012, but it remains to be seen if that’s another trend that will resurface for the Orioles.