If there's one positive thing to say about the 2014 Orioles rotation, it's that the starters have reliably taken their turn when called.
Until Miguel Gonzalez landed on the disabled list June 6, the Birds' Opening Day starting five -- Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Gonzalez and Bud Norris -- had started all but one of the Orioles' games. The Birds were the only team in the American League with such stability in its rotation.
But while the Orioles' starters have been durable, they haven't been particularly good.
Through June 10, the Orioles' starting staff ranked fifth worst in the AL in ERA, sixth worst in opponents' OPS and last in innings pitched, with Birds hurlers consistently struggling to pitch deep into games. The Orioles' mediocre rotation is much of the reason the club has lingered around the .500 mark in 2014 rather than taking a bigger step toward contention.
It's a safe bet that executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette will be searching for ways to upgrade the Birds' starting staff as the season progresses. The Orioles, though, were dealt a blow when one of their leading in-house candidates -- two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana -- suffered a season-ending Achilles tear during extended spring training June 6. Santana, rehabbing from 2013 shoulder surgery, had been expected to join the Birds' rotation by mid-June. Instead, the Orioles will have to look for other options -- or continue to make do with the status quo.
If the Birds decide to add some fresh blood to the rotation, who might be the top contenders to give a boost to the staff?
RHP KEVIN GAUSMAN
Many consider Gausman, a 2012 first-round draft pick and the Orioles' current top pitching prospect, to be a future ace. But when will that future arrive? Gausman, 23, got his first promotion to the majors in 2013, a year after he was drafted, and struggled as a starter. This year, he was hit hard during a one-game call-up May 14 -- giving up five runs in four innings -- but delivered his finest outing as a big leaguer (seven innings, one run) when given a second chance June 7.
Gausman can zip a fastball with the best of them -- with a career average of 95.7 mph on his heater as of June 11 -- but, at times, has looked like an unpolished pitcher. During his major league stints, he has struggled in particular with command of his secondary pitches, often allowing hitters to sit on his fastball. Gausman might not yet be ready to succeed long term in the majors, despite his occasional flashes of brilliance.
The Orioles have faced criticism for their handling of Gausman during the last two years -- bouncing him between the majors and minors and from the rotation to the bullpen -- and they might be better served by making a plan for Gausman and sticking to it. That could mean giving him a longer, uninterrupted stint at Triple-A Norfolk to continue honing his craft, or making him a regular member of their big league staff to learn at the major league level. Once Gausman shows he can throw his slider for a strike and pitch deep into games, he could soon develop into the ace many anticipate. But will that happen in 2014?
RHP SUK-MIN YOON
The Orioles signed Yoon, 27, out of the Korean Baseball Organization this past winter, giving him a chance to transfer his overseas success -- including winning the KBO's Most Valuable Player award in 2011, when he went 17-5 with a 2.45 ERA -- to the majors. Thus far, he's spent the 2014 season at Norfolk and hasn't fared particularly well, posting a 5.54 ERA during his first 13 starts for the Tides. Yoon's contract requires him to be in the major leagues in 2015 and 2016, but he doesn't figure to be a rotation solution for 2014, barring substantial improvement.
Long shots: The Orioles' No. 2 pitching prospect, right-hander Dylan Bundy, is working his way back from 2013 Tommy John surgery and could be assigned to an affiliate by late June. But he'll need considerable time to build up innings before he's a big league option, so he likely won't get much or any action for the Birds this year.
Righty Eddie Gamboa has a chance to become the first knuckleball pitcher for the Birds since Hoyt Wilhelm, but he didn't begin throwing the knuckler regularly until 2013 and still needs time to master the pitch at Norfolk. (UPDATE: On June 13, Gamboa was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.)
RHP JEFF SAMARDZIJA
Trading for a veteran starter before the All-Star break can often be a difficult task, because many teams aren't ready to acknowledge that they're out of contention. Not so for the perennially cellar-dwelling Cubs, who are usually more than willing to sell off veterans as part of their ongoing rebuilding process.
This year, their prized commodity is Samardzija, their snake-bitten ace who garnered two wins during his first 13 games despite a 2.54 ERA. Samardzija's excellent pitching in 2014 largely has been wasted by the Cubs' hapless offense and bullpen, and he may benefit from a change of scenery.
Rumors abounded in late May that the O's were among the leading contenders to trade for Samardzija, though Duquette denied that the Birds had spoken to the Cubs about him. Still, the 29-year-old Samardzija could appeal to the Orioles. Since converting from relief to the rotation in 2012, Samardzija is averaging almost 6.2 innings per start and 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Both would be a boost to an O's rotation that has had trouble pitching deep into games and racking up strikeouts.
The Cubs, according to reports, are seeking top pitching prospects as part of a trade package, and they would likely inquire about Gausman, Bundy and Hunter Harvey. The Orioles might be hesitant to part with any of their top three pitching prospects for Samardzija, who is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season.
And Samardzija -- although likely an upgrade from the Birds' current starters -- shouldn't be considered a true ace, as he holds a career ERA+ of 101 as of June 10. (ERA+ measures a pitcher's performance in relation to the league; an ERA+ of 100 represents a league-average pitcher). If the Cubs are to entice the Orioles into a Samardzija trade, they might have to set their sights on a lower-tier prospect, such as Double-A lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, as the headliner of the return.
RHP BRANDON MCCARTHY
The Diamondbacks' McCarthy hasn't pitched well this year, posting a 5.13 ERA and registering five quality starts out of his first 13. Still, McCarthy is a veteran with a solid track record in the majors, and, in fact, is not unlike Scott Feldman, whom the O's acquired as part of a midseason trade in 2013. McCarthy is a 30-year-old right-hander in his ninth year of pitching, as was Feldman when the Birds acquired him last year. Like Feldman, McCarthy is essentially a league-average pitcher, carrying a career ERA+ of 100.
One concern with McCarthy is his injury history, which has prevented him from making more than 25 starts during any season. An ailing right shoulder has plagued McCarthy at various points throughout his career, costing him the entire 2010 season. But his reputation as an injury risk -- and his status as an impending free agent -- could mean the O's could acquire him cheaply as part of a trade without costing them anyone or anything they're likely to miss.
LHP FRANCISCO LIRIANO
Liriano is one of the biggest wild cards on this list -- during any given season, he could be a different version of himself. Liriano, 30, was once an up-and-coming star for the Twins, making the All-Star team with a 2.16 ERA in 2006, his first full MLB season. But since then, he has yet to put up two good seasons in a row. Liriano posted a season ERA higher than 5.00 three times from 2009-12.
In 2013, though, Liriano turned into one of the biggest free-agent bargains in baseball. The Pirates took a chance on Liriano with a low-cost deal, and he rewarded them with a 16-8 record, a 3.02 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 161 innings, helping Pittsburgh make the postseason for the first time in 21 years.
This year, Liriano's performance has regressed as the Pirates have struggled, but he's still striking out plenty of batters -- averaging 1.06 strikeouts per inning through his first 14 starts -- and brings an impressive repertoire of pitches. Trading for Liriano could pay off handsomely or could blow up in the Orioles' face.
RHP JUSTIN MASTERSON
Masterson, 29, has served as a mainstay atop Cleveland's staff since 2009, but contract extension talks have gotten contentious between the two sides. If the Indians fall out of the race by the end of July, they could choose to trade Masterson before they lose him to free agency.
Masterson, a veteran workhorse, could be a nice fit in Baltimore. He's a ground-ball pitcher -- as of June 10, he had a career 2.19 ground ball-to-fly ball rate -- which would work to his benefit at homer-friendly Camden Yards.
RHP JASON HAMMEL
Hammel is on this list because he's a likely trade chip on a lousy team (the Cubs), but don't count on him reuniting with the Orioles. The O's let Hammel walk away as a free agent after a disappointing 2013 season, which he began as the Birds' Opening Day starter, but finished pitching out of the bullpen, thanks to a 4.97 ERA. This year, Hammel is pitching more like the breakout version the O's had in 2012, but the ship may have already sailed between Hammel and the Orioles.
Long shots: If the O's want to make a splash and acquire a bona fide ace, there could be a few available, starting with lefty David Price of the free-falling Rays. But the chances of the Rays trading Price within the division are slim, and the chances of the O's giving up multiple top prospects to Tampa Bay are even slimmer.
A former Rays ace and now Royal, righty James Shields, could become available, as Kansas City has underperformed this season and Shields is an impending free agent. Again, though, the price in prospects would likely be prohibitive.
Veteran southpaw Cliff Lee of the flagging Phillies is accustomed to being traded -- it's happened four times during his pro career -- but his hefty contract pays him $25 million per year through 2015 with a possible $27.5 million vesting option for 2016. That's almost certainly too rich for the Orioles' blood.