Watching the Orioles' 2017 starting rotation night after night and day after day has caused an emotional crisis for me. At 65 years old and now in my 34th consecutive season of Orioles fandom with no ring, I am wondering if I'll ever get to experience what I did back in the fall of 1983, when the Philadelphia Phillies' Garry Maddox lined a lazy, humpback liner into Cal Ripken Jr.'s glove and the O's were atop the baseball world.
Seriously, as much fun as the first five years of executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette regime have been, the 2017 season has revealed a missing link: the team's philosophy on developing or acquiring high-end starting pitching. That task is an absolute necessity if a team is going to seriously contend for a World Series championship.
At one time, the Orioles represented the gold standard for not just good starting pitching but great starting pitching. They're the organization that developed Milt Pappas, Steve Barber, Wally Bunker, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Mike Boddicker from the late 1950s through 1984. Since 1984, when Boddicker was the last O's starter to win 20 games, the club has developed only one great pitcher: Mike Mussina.
And if they didn't develop them, they traded for the likes of a Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar, Scott McGregor or Scott Erickson to pass the baton to. Now the best they can trade for is Wade Miley.
Sure, there was Ben McDonald, Erik Bedard and Sidney Ponson, who all teased that they could be staff leaders. A few others not drafted by the club -- Jeremy Guthrie, Jose Mercedes and Rodrigo Lopez -- were adequate helpers
Chris Tillman has been a solid, reliable leader. They've had some bad luck with the recent starting prospects Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Hunter Harvey, with two of them missing a lot of development time due to injury.
The free-agent market hasn't been too positive an avenue past Jimmy Key in 1996-1997. There was the failed Sid Fernandez experiment years ago. Rich Hill flopped as an Andy MacPhail pick-up.
Duquette did have some good luck with Wei-Yin Chen, but he has struck out badly with his two biggest forays into modern high-stakes free agency with Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo. The talent at Triple-A that could help the starting staff is non-existent.
Recently, I did a quick exercise in order to ascertain if there was finally at least some cause for hope that a pipeline of starting pitching talent might exist. So I started to look at basic starting pitching stats at Delmarva (Low-A), Frederick (High-A) and Bowie (Double-A) -- innings pitched, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts-to-walks ratio. The stats of the Orioles' starting pitching at these three levels was so abysmal that I quickly did the same exercise for the other four American League East teams, and what I found was staggering.
Without boring you with the names, let's just do the number of promising starting pitching prospects for those three levels of play. Let's face it, if the Orioles had any at Triple-A Norfolk, they'd have been in Baltimore weeks ago.
The Blue Jays have about 10 pitchers who reasonably can be projected anywhere from a No. 1- to a No. 4-caliber starting pitcher. The Tampa Bay Rays had 11 such prospects, and in fact used one of them -- Ethan Clark -- in the trade that delivered them shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from the Miami Marlins in June. The Boston Red Sox have 13 true starters percolating in their minor league system, and the New York Yankees have a whopping 15 that passed my rudimentary test.
The Orioles lagged far behind their AL East rivals with only four pitchers who look to be capable of advancing to even the next level next year.
You'd think for a team with so few starting pitching prospects in the minors, one shortcut might be to enter into the geographical area where you might be able to cheaply sign “live arms” -- Latin America. This would include the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia and Cuba. Instead, the Orioles are essentially punting by trading away spending slots to other teams to try to get something rather than having the money simply go unspent.
On July 2, the Washington Nationals announced the 27 players they just signed from these countries (excluding Cuba), 12 of whom were pitchers.
Remember in 1999 when the Orioles played a game in Cuba and then had the National Cuban team play in Baltimore? You'd think with all the flak owner Peter Angelos took for his and the club's historic trip to Cuba and sitting with Fidel Castro that there would have been some gain for being the first American team to play on Cuban soil in nearly four decades.
Instead, the Orioles have signed just one Cuban player of any note -- Ariel Miranda in 2015. Don't get me started by mentioning outfielder Henry Urrutia, the Cuban outfielder who played a grand total of 34 games with the Orioles during two seasons in 2013 and 2015 and is now in the Boston minor league system.
With this season slipping away and complicated personnel decisions looming, O's fans have good reason to worry about the club slipping backward and becoming less relevant. If the Orioles don't establish a starting pitching philosophy that works, all of their other good efforts may be for naught.
Issue 235: July 2017