O! Say...Which Starting Pitcher?

Posted Thursday January 30, 2014 at 10:54:42 am in Real Sports

The Orioles allowed 709 runs in 2013. Good for 13 shy of being league average, but when you really look into it...their starting pitching was actually fairly worse. And in order to contend in 2014, they're going to need some help.

4.57 ERA. That's what the Orioles starting rotation ended up with in 2013. If you love FanGraphs (and I sure do!), you can use their handy dandy chart to determine what a 4.57 ERA really means. If you don't feel like clicking on the link, that ERA is somewhere being poor and awful. Poor. Awful.

Compare that to their relief corps ERA (3.52)...and it's pretty evident why the O's pitching looked better than it really was. Quite simply, the 2013 Orioles pitching was buoyed by an above average bullpen (although not elite like in 2012 where the bullpen posted a 3.00 ERA).

A solid bullpen, a home run dependent offense, and a very good defense will only get you so far when your starting rotation is not only below average...but by most metrics...they're actually pretty bad.

The Follies Of The 2013 O's Starters

We can point out some other problematic stats for the rotation from 2013:

  • Only averaged 5 2/3 IP
  • 1.4 HR/9
  • 6.8 SO/9
  • 450 SLG, 776 OPS
  • 2 Complete Games

Those are all pretty miserable numbers. So it reasons to stand that the Orioles need to improve their starting pitching.

It doesn't take much to assume that the Orioles rotation (as it stands today) for 2014 is shaping up to be the following:

  1. Chris Tillman (25 years old, 2013: 3.71 ERA, 1.221 WHIP, 7.8 SO/9, 113 ERA+)
  2. Wei-Yin Chen (27 years old, 2013: 4.07 ERA, 1.321 WHIP, 6.8 SO/9, 103 ERA+)
  3. Miguel Gonzalez (29 years old, 2013: 3.78 ERA, 1.226 WHIP, 6.3 SO/9, 111 ERA+)
  4. Bud Norris (28 years old, 2013: 4.18 ERA, 1.489 WHIP, 7.5 SO/9, 98 ERA+)
  5. Zach Britton (25 years old, 2013: 4.95 ERA, 1.725 WHIP, 4.1 SO/9, 85 ERA+)

FWIW, the #5 spot is the enigma. It could be Britton. It could be Gausman. It could be Matusz. It could be McFarland.

My contention is that it shouldn't be any of them. And I think the Orioles will be doing a huge injustice to the fan-base and the team if it's their plan.

The Problem With The #5 Rotation Slot

My general belief on those 4 guys is as follows:

  • Zach Britton is young, left handed, and out of options. And, if healthy, he could be a decent #5. But health problems, control issues, and inability to go deep into game means that he shouldn't be given a rotation slot. But, his age and lack of options means he'll probably end up in the bullpen (unless injured). Unless he's traded or hurt, look for Britton to be on the 25 man roster come Opening Day 2014.
  • Kevin Gausman is a future ace. He has electric, dominating stuff. He has amazing control. But, his lack of a refined 3rd pitch is holding him back. For now. He's only 22, posted a SO/9 of 9.3 and a BB/9 of 2.5 with the big club in 2013. But he was rushed to the majors. Look for Gausman to start the year in AAA.
  • Brian Matusz...is a phenomenal LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY). Outside of that, he gets crushed by righties. I'm not convinced Matusz will ever be a viable starting pitching option. But he doesn't need to be. He's 26 and has an option remaining. Unless something catastrophic happens, Matusz will be the O's LOOGY in 2014.
  • TJ McFarland was a Rule V draft pick in 2013 by the O's. He was kept on the roster and I fully expect McFarland to either start in AAA or end up as the long man in the O's bullpen. With Britton out of options, I think McFarland is a 25 man roster casualty and will start the season at AAA. Unless Britton is hurt.

Okay, so since those names are debunked....what is out there for the Orioles?

What Starters Are Available?

Now, most out there believe than Dan Duquette is not only looking for 1 starting pitcher, but he's actually looking for 2. With his recent comments (January 22nd) as it pertains to the payroll as follows:

"We have resources to extend our payroll. Our payroll is going to be closer to $100 million this year," Duquette said. "Having said that, we are going to need to work internally with our young pitchers to bring them along."

Most calculations have the Orioles payroll obligations as of today at about $83 million. This leaves about $17 million in wiggle room for the Orioles. I don't think much (if any) of that $17 million is going to go the way of a closer or a bat (DH). And nor should it.

The 2013 Orioles scored 745 runs. Good for 4th in the American League. I think they'll end up in the 730-750 range again this year. With that said, the O's need to focus on their starting pitching. So what's available on the market?

Well, if you read my subtitle, you'll notice I put 3 names: Ervin Santana, Bronson Arroyo, and Ubaldo Jimenez. But with news coming out yesterday that AJ Burnett will pitch in 2014...I want to add his name to the list.

Let me separate the pitchers into 2 categories: those that will require the Orioles giving up a draft pick (their first rounder) and those that will not.

Ervin Santana turned down the Royals $14.1 million qualifying offer...and he will require a compensation pick to be given up by whomever signs him.

Along similar lines, Ubaldo Jimenez turned down the Indians $14.1 million qualifying offer.

However, AJ Burnett nor Bronson Arroyo received qualifying offers. And with that, they will not require a draft pick compensation.

What makes this interesting is that the draft pick is really slowing down the market for certain players. See: Kendrys Morales, Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Some (myself included) believe that the draft pick loss is going to end up affecting the contract of Jimenez and Santana. Look no further than Matt Garza (no draft pick required) who just signed a 4 year, $50 million contract with the Brewers. Garza was the one pitcher that made perfect sense to the O's (no draft pick compensation, solid strikeout guy, low walk rate, just turned 30). But with Garza off the board, who should the O's be targeting?

Who Should They Want

I want to make real quick and apparent the follies of giving up the draft pick. The O's traded away their compensatory pick to the Houston Astros (along with Josh Hader and L.J. Hoes) in the trade for Bud Norris. I don't think the Orioles can afford to give up another 1st rounder for someone like Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez.

Let me explain. Keith Law just released his Top 100 prospects list. On that list, believe it or not, are 5 Orioles. In particular:

  1. Kevin Gausman (#23)
  2. Dylan Bundy (#31)
  3. Hunter Harvey (#38)
  4. Eduardo Rodriguez (#43)
  5. Jonathan Schoop (#86)

What you'll notice on that list are a couple things. One, aside from Schoop, they're all pitchers (starters). And second...none of them are in the Top 10. Or even the Top 20. Couple that with the fact that Keith Law rated the O's minor league system at #10 (out of 30 teams), and I think it's readily apparent that the system is very much top heavy. This club needs more legit talent in the minors. So that means...stop giving up our top draft picks (for the wrong players)!

Draft Pick Loss Pitchers

With the draft pick loss associated to the signing of Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez...it'll end up driving down their costs. If you flash back to November of 2013, there were talks that Santana could be deserving of a $100 million contract. I contend that he'll be lucky to get a $40-$50 million contract.

I did a little digging around...and SB Nation had an interesting article titledErvin Santana free agency: Pitcher unlikely to beat Garza's deal. And in that article the subtitle explains it all: Santana may have to settle for as little as as three years and $40 million. I think if you look at Garza's contract (4 year, $50 million???$12.5 million annually)...then you can see what the max that Santana will get. Similar ages. Similar performing pitchers. The one thing Santana has going for him that Garza doesn't is durability. Either way, I expect Santana to sign somewhere for something like 3 year/$36 million. And while that's generally a bargain in an overly inflated market (driven by the increase in TV money for MLB teams)....it's $12 million a year and the loss of a draft pick. Aside from 2012, Santana has been worth about 3 WAR (2010, 2011, 2013).

But there are some strong things going right for Santana in the performance department. Over the last 4 years:

  • 210 IP/year
  • 32 games/year
  • 6 2/3 IP/game
  • 1.238 WHIP
  • 101 ERA+
  • 3.87 ERA

Generally speaking, those are solid numbers. If you leave out his 2012 season, his ERA's are as follows: 3.92 (2010), 3.38 (2011), 3.24 (2012). For the most part Santana has been a model of consistency and durability over the last 4 years.

Now, let's look to the other draft pick loss candidate. Ubaldo Jimenez. 30 years old. Coming off a bounce back year in 2013 in which he put up the following numbers: 3.30 ERA, 1.330 WHIP, 9.6 SO/9, 3.9 BB/9, 114 ERA+. All pretty good numbers...aside from his 5 2/3 IP average. And his near 4 BB/9 walk rate.

Digging in a little deeper, his 3 year snapshot doesn't look nearly as good:

  • 183 IP/year
  • 32 games/year
  • 5 2/3 IP/game
  • 1.446 WHIP
  • 90 ERA+
  • 4.45 ERA

The trick with Ubaldo is determining whether or not his 2013 was an aberration...or reverting back to his form with the Rockies (2007-2010). And the other problems being his inability to pitch deep into games. And his high walk rate. If you recall earlier, the Orioles pitching staff did not pitch deep into games in 2013 (averaging 5 2/3 IP per start). And while Ubaldo's strikeout rate would be very welcome....his walks and inability to go deep will end up hurting the O's. In addition the question mark of consistency will come into play. One thing is for sure about Ubaldo: he has a higher ceiling. But Ubaldo isn't a guy you bank on for teams like the O's. If the O's already had a pitcher like James Shields...sure...go get Ubaldo. But not in this situation.

So, I think if the choice was between Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez...I'd say lock up Ervin Santana.

But there are other options. Options that don't require the loss of a draft pick.

No Draft Pick Loss Pitchers

Naturally the Orioles should be gravitating towards starting pitchers that don't require the loss of a draft pick. And the top two free agent targets are Bronson Arroyo and AJ Burnett. Let's break them down.

Bronson Arroyo has pitched with the Reds from 2006-2013. He has averaged 211 IP throughout those years. He's a high character guy that is incredibly durable. His numbers over the last 3 years pitching in a hitter's park:

  • 201 IP/year
  • 32 games/year
  • 6 1/3 IP/game
  • 1.242 WHIP
  • 94 ERA+
  • 4.19 ERA
  • 5.4 SO/9
  • 1.7 BB/9
  • 1.6 HR/9

I list more extensive stats for a couple reasons. First, his best characteristics are durability and the ability to go 6 1/3 IP per game. He's a low WHIP guy. But, his issues are with his strikeout rate (low, although nearly identical to his career rate of 5.8 SO/9) and home-run rate. And there's another issue: his age. He's 36 years old. That said, he's been durable. So there's that.

But he's not a difference maker for the Orioles. If anything, he's exactly the kind of pitcher that would round out the back of a rotation. But he's certainly a viable option.

But he's not the best option. To me, the best option for the Orioles is AJ Burnett. And now that he's announced that he'll pitch in 2014, I want to list exactly why he should be target #1 for the O's. Over the last 2 years with the Pittsburgh Pirates he has reinvented himself. In particular:

  • 197 IP per year
  • 30 games per year
  • 6 2/3 IP per game
  • 8.9 SO/9
  • 3.0 BB/9
  • 0.7 HR/9
  • 1.228 WHIP
  • 3.41 ERA
  • 107 ERA+

Those numbers scream out as the perfect candidate for the O's. Local guy (lives in Monkton, Maryland with his family), averages nearly 7 IP per game, high strike out rate, low WHIP, a reduced home-run rate...all with a solid ERA. In regards to durability? From 2005-2013 (Marlins, Yankees, Blue Jays, Pirates): 190 IP per year.

I think AJ Burnett is the kind of guy you back up the Brinks truck for. And I think the O's are in the perfect position to get him. If you recall, the reason why AJ Burnett doesn't necessitate a draft pick is because the Pirates didn't offer him a qualifying offer. My thoughts are that if the Pirates weren't willing to offer him $14.1 million then...then they won't now. And I don't think they'd go much over $10 million either.

And perhaps one of the best things about Burnett? Is that he won't require a long term deal. Throw $14-$15 million at him (he's made $16.5 million from 2009-2013) and lock him up.

That will shape the rotation as follows:

  1. AJ Burnett
  2. Chris Tillman
  3. Wei-Yin Chen
  4. Miguel Gonzalez
  5. Bud Norris

I think that's a pretty solid rotation. It allows for Gausman, Bundy, and McFarland to mature in the minors. It keeps Britton out of the rotation. Those are all wins.

In an ideal world, the Orioles don't just sign AJ Burnett. But they also sign Bronson Arroyo to a 3 year/$30 deal. With AJ only requiring a one year deal, I think the O's should take the extra payroll on the chin and go over the $100 threshold for the first time ever.

Assuming the O's get AJ Burnett for $15 million and Bronson Arroyo for $10 million, that ups the O's payroll from $83 million to $108 million. But only for one year.

The additions of a 2-3 win pitcher in Burnett and a 2-3 win pitcher in Arroyo will not only bolster the O's playoff chances...it'll help rest the bullpen.

So...Duquette. If you're really, truly going after 2 starting pitchers...Burnett and Arroyo are the perfect 2. No draft picks required. Durable. Consistent. And they'll pitch more than 6 innings per game.

Go O's!

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view