How many times have you heard this one: It's all about the starting pitching.
But it's also about decision-making and the process that defines the parameters of what the Orioles can and will do this offseason.
What has doomed the Orioles for large stretches of the 2017 season is an almost nightly crapshoot of what you will get from that game's starter.
"Crapshoot" is the most apropos way to put it, because the overriding image I have of Birdland on a night Ubaldo Jimenez or Chris Tillman starts is of fans whispering to themselves like a crapshooter whispers to the dice, "C'mon, daddy needs a new pair of shoes." It really has been that type of season.
The early September series against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park saw that dynamic served up by the club's two most important rotation pieces -- Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. In the biggest series of the year, both of them pitched like kids, not grown up adult major league pitchers.
The disappointment aside, both are too good too often to give up on now. So how about building the rest of the starting staff for 2018?
That starts with what now seems like one easy decision.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette struck gold just before the start of the season when he acquired 22-year-old right-hander Miguel Castro.
As of Sept. 11, Castro had pitched to a 2.77 ERA and 1.102 WHIP over 55.1 innings. The 6-foot-7 Castro has mostly pitched between one and three innings, but the real eye-opener may have come against the Detroit Tigers Aug. 3, when Castro threw six, one-hit, shutout innings.
Castro will head to Sarasota, Fla., next year with a serious chance of being penciled into the Orioles' 2018 rotation.
The next decision is much harder and will require a leap of faith by ownership, management and fans alike. The Orioles have a $12 million club option on left-hander Wade Miley next season. Considering what it cost to sign Jimenez four years ago ($12.5 million per year for four years), and what it cost to sign right-hander Yovani Gallardo in 2016 (an average of $11 million for three years), suddenly one year of Miley at $12 million sounds more reasonable than I ever would have imagined.
Without an improvement from Miley, 30, in the second half, I wouldn't have bought into this concept. In seven starts since July 30, Miley has pitched 38.2 innings (an average of 5.5 per start) to record a 2.79 ERA and an acceptable 1.31 WHIP while allowing three home runs.
Now this last piece of the puzzle becomes the most difficult, because this starter really needs to be the club's No. 1 guy.
I looked at the top 10 free-agent pitchers based on salary in 2017. I won't bore you with all the names. But collectively, from CC Sabathia at $25 million to Yu Darvish at $11 million, their average salaries come to $14.9 million per year. Most of these, including Jimenez at $13.5 million, are descending in their abilities. There could be bargains in this group, but all -- except former Oriole Jake Arrieta -- come with great risk.
Among that list, the only name I'd have serious interest in is Arrieta, who made $15.6 million this season. The next tier of free-agents pitchers, who made an average of $8.4 million, include the likes of Lance Lynn, Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas and one interesting name who could resurface, former Oriole Miguel Gonzalez at $5.9 million. Much more of this group is ascending into and above the double-digit (in millions, that is) yearly average salary neighborhood.
The most attractive pitcher to me is talented right-hander Alex Cobb, 29, of the Tampa Bay Rays. His salary this year was $4.2 million. But don't get fooled into thinking he'd come cheaply. According to reports, Tampa has twice tried to sign Cobb to lengthy deals for first $30 million and then $40 million.
Cobb turned down both attempts, as the Rays tried to throw two team options into the deals. Cobb missed all of the 2015 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He also missed about 80 percent of the 2016 season, as he amassed just 22 innings.
However, Cobb has bounced back nicely in 2017 and is 11-9 with a 3.59 ERA, as of Sept. 11. With the Orioles' defense behind him, Cobb could be a big winner for the Birds. To acquire him, it will take a four-to-six-year deal in the $16 million-$18 million per year range.