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Orioles' Starting Rotation Needs Rick Sutcliffe Clone

February 17, 2014

The Orioles had much better luck, and were able to move much faster, in their quest to find the original than they were this offseason while trying to find a Rick Sutcliffe clone. There was much similarity between this offseason's hunt and the one conducted after the 1991 season, when then-manager Johnny Oates wanted a caretaker for his pitching staff, pretty much the same job description as the current search.

Orioles: Rick Sutcliffe (2012 Opening Day)
Rick Sutcliffe throws out the first pitch at Orioles Opening Day April 6, 2012. (Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox)

The difference was the process was conducted closer to the speed of sound when compared with the snail's pace in vogue this time around. You wouldn't think that doing nothing would take this long.

As of press time, Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette's options had dwindled. A.J. Burnett, the primary target from the beginning, had reportedly signed with the Phillies as of press time. The longer the process dragged out, you had to figure manager Buck Showalter was beginning to wonder whether Burnett really wanted to pitch another year, or was merely entertaining offers of convenience from teams in relatively close proximity to his Monkton home. 

As was the case before the start of the 1992 season, the first at Camden Yards, the Orioles weren't in the market for a top-of-the-rotation starter -- just for a reasonable facsimile who could do a workmanlike job, be durable and dependable, and save wear and tear on a young pitching staff. Oates was looking for somebody to pitch the first game at Camden Yards and set the tone for bright, young prospects Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina.

Showalter isn't even looking for that -- Chris Tillman earned the Opening Day assignment, and even if he isn't yet recognized as a bona fide No. 1, he's young enough, and talented enough, to be in that discussion in the near future. Behind him are Kevin Gausman, who is ticketed to open the season at Triple-A Norfolk and join the rotation somewhere around midseason, and Dylan Bundy, who should be recovered from arm surgery, and will use up his last option when he starts the season in the minor leagues.

Barring physical disaster, Tillman, Gausman and Bundy are already ticketed for three rotation spots one year from now. That wasn't going to change regardless of who Duquette brought in to give the staff veteran presence. All three are projected as legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitchers, capable of forming a strong rotation core that would provide the depth Duquette has preached since the day he arrived. 

At the risk of sounding sympathetic -- or, worse yet, apologetic -- there wasn't one pitcher on the free-agent market, at least to these eyes, who fit the job description as perfectly as Sutcliffe did 22 years ago. And the Orioles were at a distinct advantage then. Sutcliffe, who already had Rookie of the Year and a Cy Young Award on his résumé, was coming off two injury-marred years after a successful run with the Cubs.

His choices were his hometown Kansas City Royals and the Orioles, who had an ace in the hole because Oates had been Sutcliffe's teammate with the Dodgers, and later a coach during Sutcliffe's run with the Cubs. Sutcliffe won 16 games for the Orioles in 1992, but that number was insignificant. He also lost 15 games and had a mediocre 4.47 ERA, which means his 36 starts and 237 innings pitched were the only numbers that really mattered.

It meant that every fifth day, Oates had somebody who would take the mound; hang around for a decision; and, for the most part, give the bullpen a night off. He was more of a sacrificial lamb and a tutor than he was a No. 1 starter -- exactly the kind of pitcher the Orioles need this year. 

Not necessarily an ace who leads the team in victories -- just someone to swallow innings and protect a bullpen that lost effectiveness because of overwork in 2013. Both Bronson Arroyo, who, at press time, had reportedly taken the safety of a National League offer from Arizona, and Burnett could have played the role of Sutcliffe clone, but to expect any more would be a stretch.

If Duquette doesn't find somebody from the outside to fill that role, it might not have to be a disaster. My personal nomination for the in-house candidate to fill the role is Bud Norris, whose stuff falls somewhere between that of a top-of-the-rotation starter and a durable bullpen person who could work in both long and short situations. He wasn't at the top of his game after coming here via trade with Houston last year, but he's a guy scouts are having a tough time reading -- some thinking he could fill the kind of role Sutcliffe did here years ago, and others thinking he might have closer ability in the back end of the bullpen.

Either way, how he plays out this year is probably going to be critical to how the Orioles' season progresses.


At the end of the 2013 season, the consensus was that Orioles closer Jim Johnson's nine blown saves were the difference between the team being an also-ran and a contender. Now, it seems, the rationale from the same quarters is that the Orioles won't be able to replace Johnson's 101 combined saves from 2012 and 2013 -- rather than the dozen that got away during the same period.

This corner is on record as thinking the Orioles didn't do a good job of assessing Johnson's value to the club or handling the trade, a move that undoubtedly had an effect on clubhouse camaraderie, something Showalter seems to value highly. But I also agree that the value of today's closers, beyond the retired Mariano Rivera, is grossly overstated. 


If there is going to be any overall improvement in the Orioles' pitching in 2013, the thinking has usually been that it will have to come from within. Frankly, and I realize this opinion doesn't mean a thing, there's only one pitching move made this offseason that I might have made if it were my decision. It didn't take the Twins long to jump on the Phil Hughes bandwagon with a three-year, $24 million offer. I think there's a good chance that getting out of New York might be just the ticket for Hughes, a much-maligned, but still promising, right-hander.

Matt Garza has always been a favorite, dating to his American League Championship Series performance in 2008, but that was a long time ago, and the length of his contract with the Brewers -- four years -- was too much of a stretch. I don't think Arroyo would've played well at Camden Yards or in the AL East -- or have been able to log his 200 innings in a designated hitter league. I wouldn't give up a draft choice for any of the free agents who would've required compensation, nor have any interest in Fernando Rodney or Frankie "K-Rod" Rodriguez.


Just to clear up a misconception (not from here, mind you): The Yankees did not -- repeat, did not -- spend half a billion dollars for free agents this offseason. They just signed some promissory agreeing to pay that much during the next six years or so -- at which time there will be about three players on the roster (to be named later) who came up through the farm system and learned "The Yankee Way."

Jim Henneman can be reached at

Issue 194: February 2014