Despite focus on offensive woes, rotation has sealed Orioles’ 2015 fate

September 08, 2015 | Luke Jones

The Orioles’ offseason departures of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis need to be rehashed about as much as Chris Tillman desires another start against the Toronto Blue Jays at this point.

We get it.

Even if you might have agreed with the decision not to sign either outfielder to a four-year contract, there’s no excusing an offseason plan that essentially consisted of writing checks to a long list of arbitration-eligible players and trading for a failed former first-round pick (outfielder Travis Snider) after one good half in 2014.

But even with the corner outfield woes that have lingered all year, the reeling Orioles entered Tuesday averaging 4.36 runs per contest, a mark nearly identical to last season’s 4.35 scored per game. It may not feel that way with the offense’s extreme peaks and valleys during a difficult 2015 season, but the numbers don’t lie.

Would the Orioles still be in contention for a playoff spot with Cruz and Markakis? Certainly.

But would Buck Showalter’s club be even with Toronto and the New York Yankees in the American League East race? Based on the way the starting rotation has performed, probably not.

That failure has ultimately sealed the Orioles’ fate as they entered Tuesday a season-worst seven games below .500 and 7 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot.

After ranking fifth in the AL with a 3.61 starter ERA in 2014 — the rotation was even better after the All-Star break with a 2.98 ERA — Orioles starters had a 4.59 ERA through their first 137 games, ranking 13th in the AL. Baltimore posted no worse than a 3.55 ERA in each of the final four months of 2014 while this year’s rotation has pitched to no better than a 3.84 mark in any single month.

You simply can’t expect to sustain success when your starters have been nearly an entire run worse per nine innings than they were a year ago. When you strip away the names and perceptions, the offensive numbers and bullpen ERA are very similar to 2014 while the starting rotation has woefully fallen short of last year’s pace.

Entering Tuesday, the Orioles had scored three or fewer runs in 46 percent of their games this season and held a 9-54 record under such circumstances. A year ago, Baltimore scored three or fewer 44.4 percent of the time and was 21-51 in those games.

Say what you will about the offensive struggles putting pressure on the pitcher, but it’s a two-way street when only one member of the starting rotation holds an ERA below 4.00. The offense has prompted much hair-pulling over significant stretches of 2015, but the times when Orioles starters have picked up the lineup have been few and far between.

Even if Dan Duquette anticipated the Orioles offense matching last year’s overall run production, he failed in leaving no margin for error for a rotation that exceeded expectations in 2014. That said, even the executive’s biggest detractors couldn’t have expected the starting pitching to be quite this poor.

Short of the Orioles making a marquee signing for an ace such as 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, few called for Duquette to make significant changes to the rotation this offseason after such a strong 2014. Less than a year later, the Orioles are left wondering who will even fit into the 2016 equation.

Tillman sports an ERA above 5.00 after three straight years of pitching to a 3.71 mark or better to establish himself as the club’s de facto ace.

After three straight years as a reliable starter, Miguel Gonzalez has been a disaster since late June and is currently on the disabled list.

Kevin Gausman was not only mishandled at the beginning of the season, but the 24-year-old hasn’t been able to build on a 2014 season in which he posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts.

A 15-game winner a year ago, Bud Norris didn’t even make it to August with a 7.06 ERA.

Ubaldo Jimenez has followed the narrative of most of his career with a strong first half (2.81 ERA) followed by a 6.88 ERA since the All-Star break, but there has been no attractive option to replace him like there was with Gausman last year.

Wei-Yin Chen is the only starter you can feel good about this season, but even he has allowed a club-leading 28 home runs. On top of that, the Taiwanese lefty is set to become a free agent at the end of the year and appears unlikely to return.

It’s easy to say the Orioles would be fine if they still had Cruz and Markakis — they’ve clearly been missed — but the story of last year’s 96-win club was more about a starting rotation that took off over the final four months of the season than offensive firepower. At a time when the Orioles needed to bear down this season, the starting rotation has instead saved its worst performance for August (5.23 ERA) and September (8.76 in the first six starts).

Most of the attention has naturally remained on an inconsistent offense after such a failure of an offseason, but the starting rotation that picked up the Orioles a year ago has instead helped hammer the final nails into the coffin for 2015.