ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Orioles ended the 2017 season in last place and with a losing final record for the first time since 2011. To be competitive in 2018, it's obvious the Orioles' starting pitching has to be much better.
Orioles starters finished the season with a 5.70 ERA, and with right-handers Jeremy Hellickson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman set to be free agents, and left-hander Wade Miley's $12 million option expected to be declined, the team will have lots of holes to fill in the starting rotation.
The worrisome signs began early. On Feb. 14, the day the team had its first workout in Sarasota, Fla., Tillman watched as his teammates played catch.
After the workout, it was revealed the right-hander had a platelet-rich plasma shot two months before and wouldn't be ready for Opening Day.
Tillman, who had started the previous three Opening Days, missed a month of the season and struggled when he returned, finishing 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA.
Right-hander Kevin Gausman took Tillman's place on Opening Day and failed to adequately replace him throughout the season. Others in the rotation pitched poorly, too.
"I think it all started with us, with starting pitching," Gausman said. "We just had multiple guys that didn't go as deep into games as we would have liked. Because of that we had to make a lot of moves in our bullpen. There's a lot of things that kind of trickle down when things like that happen, but I think any season kind of starts and ends with your starting pitching."
Gausman (11-12, 4.68) and right-hander Dylan Bundy (13-9, 4.24) are the only starters guaranteed to be in the rotation next season.
"We've got to rebuild our starting rotation," Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "I still think that Gausman can be an elite pitcher in the league. We'll have to find some starters beyond that."
With Tillman stumbling, the Orioles traded for Hellickson just ahead of the trade deadline, but he went 2-6 with a 6.97 ERA in 10 starts. Hellickson said he enjoyed his time with the club, but he didn't like pitching at home.
"Pitching at Camden wasn't too much fun, but it's definitely someplace I'd like to come back to," Hellickson said.
Had Tillman been as effective as he was from 2012-2016 when he averaged 13 wins a season, the club could have withstood the subpar performances from Ubaldo Jimenez and Miley. But, after Gausman couldn't replicate Tillman's performance in the first half, there were too many holes to fill.
Left-handed closer Zach Britton, who converted all 47 of his save opportunities in 2016, missed most of the first half with a strained left forearm and ended the season sidelined with a left knee injury.
In between, the closer pitched in only 38 games and saw his American League record streak of 60 converted saves come to an end.
For a time in June, right-hander Darren O'Day was on the disabled list as well, and to take Britton and O'Day's place, the Orioles recalled a series of relievers who floundered.
At the trading deadline, the Orioles seriously considered sending Britton to the Houston Astros, but the deal collapsed. Now, because of concerns about his knee, the team may be forced to keep him despite a possible $14 million-$15 million salary next year.
Duquette said he doesn't plan to deal Britton or third baseman Manny Machado, both of whom are in their final season before they're eligible for free agency. He'd like to see them return in 2018.
"I hope so. We like those guys," Duquette said. "They've had good careers with the Orioles and we're planning on having them on the club. We're building a club with them on it. And we'll see where it takes us."
Duquette, who, like manager Buck Showalter, is entering the final season on his contract, has no patience for a rebuild.
"I don't know who rebuilds in the American League East," Duquette said. "In the American League East you reload, OK? And then you try to have as good a team as you can the next season as you did the past season."