Having just signed the richest deal in franchise history, first baseman Chris Davis stated the obvious when asked Thursday what else the Orioles still need for the 2016 season.
“Obviously, we lost [Wei-Yin] Chen,” Davis said, “so I think we need another starting pitcher.”
The answer probably wasn’t music to the ears of Dan Duquette after the organization awarded the 29-year-old slugger with a seven-year, $161 million contract, but the executive vice president of baseball operations said at the start of the offseason that upgrading the starting rotation would be a top priority. And that was before Chen, their most consistent starter over the last four seasons, signed a five-year, $80 million contract to join the Miami Marlins.
With spring training less than a month away, the remaining options are few for a club that finished 14th in the American League in starter ERA in 2015, which included Chen’s 3.34 mark over 31 starts.
“We’re still looking for additions to our pitching staff,” Duquette said. “It takes a lot of energy to sign a star player for an organization. Obviously, we have a long-term deal with Chris, and we’re happy to have him here. We’re always cognizant of what we need to add to our pitching staff. We haven’t found the pitching that we really like at the prices we like. That’s been a very, very expensive market this offseason, but I’m confident we’ll be able to come up with the pitching that we need to compete.”
How costly has it been?
Even Davis’ agent, Scott Boras, commented on the high demand for starting pitching this offseason after he negotiated five-year contracts for Chen and Kansas City starter Ian Kennedy and even fetched a two-year, $16 million deal for Mike Pelfrey — and his career 4.52 ERA — in Detroit. Boras said this has affected the timing of the market for position players such as Davis.
Of the 10 contracts worth $80 million or more that have been signed this winter, seven have gone to starting pitchers.
“We’ve had eight pitchers sign five-or-more-year contracts in this market,” Boras said. “That’s unheard of. The demand on pitching quelled the market on offensive power, because the teams were so focused. So many teams needed pitching and needed offense, but the competitiveness for the pitching took a focus.”
So, who’s left?
Right-hander Yovani Gallardo turns 30 next month and has posted an ERA below 4.00 in six of his seven full seasons in the majors, but his strikeout rate has rapidly declined from 9.0 per nine innings in 2012 to just 5.9 last year and the Orioles would have to forfeit their 2016 first-round pick to sign him.
The 28-year-old Mat Latos was an above-average starter in the National League — he had a 3.34 career ERA entering 2015 — until injuries derailed his last two seasons and questions arose about his attitude after his trade from Cincinnati to Miami last offseason. At this point, he could be looking for a one-year pillow contract to re-establish his value, but Camden Yards wouldn’t be the ideal setting for that from his perspective.
Like Latos, signing right-hander Doug Fister wouldn’t require a draft pick, but he will be 32 and has seen his strikeout and groundball rates decline as well as his velocity. However, he does have experience pitching in the AL and won 16 games and posted a 2.41 ERA in 2014.
There isn’t much out there beyond that, unless you want to try to take Tim Lincecum for a ride in your DeLorean.
“There are some pitchers out there that we like, and then we have talked to some other teams about pitching,” Duquette said. “The problem with the pitching market is there have been more teams chasing fewer pitchers. There’s not enough to go around. That’s an age-old problem. But it was very acute this winter.”
Even if the Orioles are to pluck one of the aforementioned options from the market, none would be a guarantee to settle into the top half of the rotation, much less headline the group. Depth will remain a concern with the likes of Vance Worley, Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, T.J. McFarland, or a stretched-out Brian Matusz waiting in the wings.
The need for Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez to return to pre-2015 form and for Kevin Gausman to take a a major step forward has been discussed ad nauseam, but injuries — at least minor ailments — are inevitable over the course of a 162-game schedule and Baltimore appears ill-equipped to endure that reality. Duquette’s statements about the pitching market on Thursday may have contained truth, but the Orioles annually lament a free-agent market that’s more expensive than they anticipated.
That won’t make fans feel any better about the state of the rotation.
“We should have a good defensive team,” Duquette said. “We’ve got a lot of the core back. We should be strong up the middle. We have Buck’s leadership and the bullpen, and I think those are all strengths of the team that we can build on. We’re going to have to get some good performance from the pitchers that we have and then continue to add to that.”
The Orioles still have a lot going for them, and there is some reasonable upside to help fill the void left by Chen. Doubts entering the season certainly existed prior to 2012 when the club unexpectedly returned to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years and before 2014 when the Orioles endured season-ending injuries to Manny Machado and Matt Wieters to win their first AL East title since 1997.
It’s a reality in which the Orioles have thrived, according to Davis.
“That’s kind of been our MO the last few years,” Davis said. “We’ve never been the sexy team, so to speak — the easy pick to win the AL East. I think we kind of like that role.”
Hopefully, the starting rotation will feel the same way.