It's a new year, and for Baltimore Orioles fans, that means a new sense of urgency. The holidays are behind us and the free agent and trade markets will soon begin to pick up again, as some big names and impact players are still out there up for grabs.
The O's haven't done much to improve their roster this offseason, leading fans to believe that they will continue that trend before spring training and the regular season start. However, there's still time, as pitchers and catchers aren't due to report to spring training for over a month.
Barring any changes, the Orioles have a fairly set starting pitching rotation, with spots one through four appearing to be occupied. That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs, where the Orioles have no shortage of available arms to fill that slot.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that right-hander Chris Tillman is named the team's No. 1 starter for the Opening Day assignment.
But seriously, Tillman is the clear-cut choice to front the O's rotation after finishing last season 16-7 with a 3.71 ERA. He made 33 starts with one complete game and threw 206.1 innings, striking out 179 batters. The breakout season for Tillman followed his 2012 season, which included 15 starts, a 9-3 record and 2.93 ERA, proving that the young pitcher is putting it together at the big league level after three straight frustrating seasons in which he had a plus-5.00 ERA to begin his career.
Tillman may not be a true ace, but he's turning into a top-of-the-rotation starter, is the best the O's have and may get even better this season.
From here on out, Baltimore's rotation isn't as easy to predict.
The O's currently have three guys penciled into the rotation in Miguel Gonzalez, lefty Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. If the O's were to go out and acquire a Bronson Arroyo or A.J. Burnett, then I would imagine either would slot into the No. 2 role and everyone else would be bumped back a slot. If they don't make any additions, though, here's how I see it playing out.
Manager Buck Showalter likely already has an idea of how he wants to lay out his rotation, but will consider spring performances to see if any shuffling around is needed. Ultimately, I see Gonzalez grabbing the No. 2 slot, as he's been a solid arm for the Orioles over the past two seasons. In 2012, he appeared in 18 games, made 15 starts, and went 9-4 with an ERA of 3.25 over 105.1 innings. In 2013, he made 28 starts, going 11-8 with a 3.78 ERA over 171.1 innings pitched.
After Gonzalez, I see Chen taking the third spot. The left-hander has been a nice pickup for the O's at 19-18 with a 4.04 ERA in 55 starts over the past two seasons. He's much better suited for a fourth or fifth slot in the rotation, but seeing as how the O's haven't added a starter to slot into the rotation this winter, guys are going to have to be slotted higher than their worth.
That leaves Norris as the team's No. 4 pitcher. Norris came over from the Houston Astros at the trade deadline last year, and was the No 1 pitcher on that team. He went 4-3 with a 4.80 ERA for the O's after his acquisition, making nine starts and pitching 50.2 innings in 11 appearances. On a team with more quality starting pitching depth, Norris would likely to be a bullpen guy, and he may ultimately end up there with the O's, but for now, they need him to start.
The problem with the O's rotation, outside of Tillman, is that each guy has trouble going deep into games, often starting strong then struggling at some point in the fifth inning or beyond. Doing that on a consistent basis taxes the O's bullpen, which is why I strongly believe the team needs to add an Arroyo or a Burnett to pair with Tillman and give the bullpen more of a breather.
Also, adding a guy like either of those would bump back Gonzalez, Chen, and Norris into more suitable starting slots, providing better matchups against opposing teams' starting pitchers and therefore presenting more of an opportunity to win games.
As for the No. 5 spot, Baltimore has many pitchers who will be competing for that slot in spring training, including lefties Zach Britton, T.J. McFarland and Brian Matusz, along with right-handers Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson, Liam Hendriks and Kevin Gausman. I view Britton and Matusz as the favorites, though Britton may have the edge because the O's have come to value Matusz in the bullpen. Britton doesn't have any options left, giving him an edge over McFarland, Stinson, Hendriks and Gausman.
With left-hander Troy Patton having to serve a 25-game suspension at the start of the season after testing positive for amphetamine use, the O's have a hole in the bullpen, making it likely that McFarland will start the season in the majors rather than in Triple-A. The O's would likely prefer McFarland in the bullpen in that case. Ultimately, I see Britton nabbing the fifth spot in the rotation as he is without minor league options and the O's want to find out what they have in him.
In the end, I see the O's going with a fairly predictable starting five, assuming that they don't bring in someone from outside the organization. I predict that Tillman, Gonzalez, Chen, Norris, and Britton will break camp as the five pitchers in the O's starting rotation—in that order. Hopefully they will improve in 2014 and help lead the O's to a playoff berth.