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To Improve Starting Pitching, Orioles Must Be Willing To Make A Trade

November 9, 2017
For the Orioles to have any chance of competing in 2018, they need to get better starting pitching.

You know it. I know it. Dan Duquette, the club's executive vice president of baseball operations, knows it. So does manager Buck Showalter.

The Orioles' group of 11 starters in 2017 combined for a 5.70 ERA, the worst mark in franchise history. It was the worst rotation ERA in baseball since the Colorado Rockies posted a collective 5.81 in 2012.

Six Orioles combined for 148 starts in 2017, and four of those guys likely will not be part of the 2018 rotation: Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Tillman, who may be the only one with a slight possibility of returning.

That means there are likely to be three openings in the Orioles' upcoming rotation, with only Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy guaranteed spots.

Duquette is hopeful at least one slot can be filled internally, with Miguel Castro and Gabriel Ynoa as leading candidates.

But those guys are fifth starters or swingmen, at least at this point in their young careers.

What the Orioles really need are two veteran pitchers who can be closer to the top of the rotation than the bottom.

And how do they get them?

That's the difficult part; the question that can't be answered right now.

"I don't know where they're going to come from, but we'll have some good starting pitching," Duquette said of the 2018 team. "That was the job in 2012, to go out and find some starting pitching and we were able to sign [Wei-Yin] Chen and we picked up Miguel Gonzalez, and Chris Tillman emerged. That really propelled the team from the second division to the first division and then we were able to stay there since until this year, when our starting pitching failed us."

During his tenure in Baltimore, Duquette has looked just about everywhere for starting pitching: Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, Korea, the waiver wire, the farm system, trades and free agency.

And I'm sure the same will happen this winter. He is tireless when it comes to searching.

But to find legitimate starters who can step into a major league rotation and do the job, Duquette has two primary options.

One is free agency. But that is, frankly, often a stroke of desperation for the Orioles.

Under managing partner Peter Angelos, the club has been hesitant to spend major money on free-agent pitchers. The philosophy is that most pitchers who hit the open market are in their 30s and have thrown an exorbitant number of innings or already have suffered serious arm injuries. So, the long-term deals it would take to acquire their services are risky investments.

History supports that philosophy. Rarely does a long-term contract to a free-agent pitcher pay off for the length of the deal. The Orioles had never gone more than three years for a free-agent starter until Duquette convinced Angelos to sign Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million contract in 2014. The thought was that Jimenez was exceptionally durable, had just turned 30 and had figured out his mechanical problems with a great second half in 2013 for the Cleveland Indians.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

Physically, Jimenez held up throughout the deal, but he was 32-42 with a 5.22 ERA in four mostly shaky seasons. And you have to wonder if that failed experiment will prohibit the Orioles from going back to the four-year well in the future.

The good news, I suppose, is that there are few pending free-agent pitchers this offseason worthy of four-year or longer deals. Ex-Oriole Jake Arrieta and Los Angeles Dodger Yu Darvish are; no one else seems to be on first blush. There are some intriguing names such as Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Francisco Liriano and Jason Vargas, but they all have warts. Plus, knowing that half their games are spent pitching in Camden Yards, you figure the Orioles will have to overpay to win any bidding war.

That, then, leaves the trade market.

It's the obvious direction to go for the Orioles -- and maybe any team at this point.

The Cleveland Indians had the best rotation ERA in the American League this year. They had five pitchers make at least 20 starts this season; four of those were acquired via trade. The only one who wasn't was Josh Tomlin, and he had the worst ERA of that group.

The New York Yankees had the AL's second-best rotation ERA. They had six pitchers make at least 10 starts. The acquisition breakdown of those six: Two homegrown, one MLB free agent, two acquired through trades and one an international professional signed as a free agent.

The Tampa Bay Rays are always vaunted for their ability to develop starting pitching. Well, three of the five who made at least 15 starts for the Rays this year were acquired via trade.

As coveted as starting pitching is, it's also the most difficult commodity to evaluate. Of the top 10 ERA leaders among qualified AL starters this year, eight have been traded at least once. To be fair, a few of those -- Chris Sale, Sonny Gray and Justin Verlander -- were dealt by their original teams for rebuilding purposes. Others, though, such as Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Drew Pomeranz, were given up by their original organizations without throwing a pitch at the major league level.

So, those diamonds are out there. Duquette just has to find them. And he's done it before. Remember, this is the guy who twice traded for eventual Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez.

The flip side, of course, is Duquette has to have something to trade, something a team covets enough to give up a starter with talent and/or upside.

He has that in third baseman Manny Machado and relievers Zach Britton and Brad Brach, all free agents after 2018. But Duquette has said he wants to hold onto those three as part of the core for next year's team.

That's admirable, but maybe not possible if he truly is committed to improving the rotation for 2018. The farm system is improving, but was not deep enough to put together a package for a legitimate ace (the way the Boston Red Sox did for Sale last winter).

There really aren't a whole lot of options here. Duquette is going to find starting pitching any way he can -- but the most logical route is to trade for it. And, as we've seen before with Duquette -- with most GMs, really -- trades can easily blow up on you, too.

It's an unenviable position for a team to be in, but it's where the Orioles' rotation, and some misfiring moves, has put them. 

Issue 238: October 2017

Originally published Oct. 16, 2017