Last season, the Baltimore Orioles starting rotation was atrocious. That’s the nicest way I can put it. The rotation, consisting mainly of Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeremy Hellickson, Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, and Wade Miley, finished with an earned run average of 5.70. That mark placed them as one of the worst in the history of Major League Baseball.
Without a doubt, the biggest question facing the Orioles in 2018 is, yet again, pitching. It took until the end of February, but General Manager Dan Duquette finally brought in some rotation pieces to fill out the staff. Free agent pitchers Andrew Cashner (two years/$16 million) and Chris Tillman (one year/$3 million) were added, giving the Orioles four starters.
During the winter meetings, Duquette used his favorite route for acquiring talent, the Rule-5 draft. LHP Nestor Cortes, acquired from the Yankees, is a legitimate prospect who will be on a major league roster for years to come. Will it be the Orioles this year? Possibly. RHP Pedro Araujo (Cubs) and Jose Mesa, Jr (Yankees) were also added in the Rule-5 draft. The odds of all three making the 25-man roster and sticking all year (as required by Rule-5 picks) are zero percent.
As the Orioles settle into their Grapefruit League schedule, manager Buck Showalter has to decide on a fifth starter. He has a number of options at his disposal. Let’s take a brief look at each of these options and who should win the final job.
Mike Wright is the old man of the Baltimore Orioles rotation.
Mike Wright is one of those players that has seemingly been around for decades. The former third-round pick of the Orioles in the 2011 draft has performed extremely well throughout his minor league career; however, he’s been unable to put it all together at the major league level.
Wright, 28, has a career ERA of 3.73 in the minors, which jumps to 5.86 over 144 career innings in the big leagues. Now out of options, Wright is facing the biggest spring training test of his career. Armed with a new cut-fastball, Wright will have to show the Orioles that he can limit his walks and limit the long-ball. He gave up just 31 home runs in 692 minor league innings, while big-league hitters have taken him deep 17 times in nearly five times fewer innings.
Chris Lee is a Baltimore Orioles prospect worth keeping an eye on.
During a January pitching minicamp, Buck Showalter was quoted as saying that Chris Lee needed to graduate from prospect status this year. Lee does have one option remaining, so there is still time, albeit not much, for Lee to showcase what made him one of the top prospects in the Houston Astros organization before coming over to Baltimore.
Lee, 25, was recently named the 14th Top Prospect of the Orioles, according to MLB Pipeline. He’s a left-handed pitcher who owns a fastball that sits 92-93 when he’s on. You won’t see Lee strikeout a lot of guys, he’s a pitch-to-contact pitcher who relies on a high groundball rate to get outs.
He spent all of 2017 in AAA with the Norfolk Tides, struggling to a 5-6 record and 5.11 ERA. Opposing batters hit .302 off Lee while he worked a pedestrian 83/54 K/BB ratio. Keep in mind, it was his first full-time action since 2015.
Speaking with Lee at FanFest earlier this month, Lee is ready to take a rotation spot and looks to be in good shape after, finally, fully recovering from a series of injuries that have limited him over the last two-three years.
Alec Asher has MLB experience with the Baltimore Orioles.
Asher appears to have the longest odds to make the active roster as a starter, but he does have major league experience. He has 18 MLB starts, working a 4-12 record and 5.55 ERA. That includes an 0-6, 9.31 ERA rookie performance with Philadelphia in 2015.
Alec Asher is one of those pitchers that has to have everything working perfectly if he wants to be a serviceable back-end of the rotation guy. He can hold his velocity with his fastball (90-91), but it doesn’t have a lot of movement. His secondary pitches are suspect, only good enough to be fringe major league pitches. There’s also nothing about him physically that stands out. I can tell I’ve done a really good job of convincing you Asher should be the Orioles’ fifth starter. He shouldn’t, but he’s an option, so there’s that.
Gabriel Ynoa will be the Baltimore Orioles fifth starter.
The final option, and one who I think will win the job, is Gabriel Ynoa. Ynoa was acquired before last season in a trade with the New York Mets for cash considerations and immediately became one of the Top 30 Orioles’ prospects. He spent most of last season with the Norfolk Tides, but did make a brief, successful appearance with the Orioles at the end of the year.
With the Orioles, Ynoa appeared in nine games and made four starts. He finished with a 4.15 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and allowed opposing batters to hit .289. One thing Ynoa does very well is not giving up walks. In 2013 he gave up a minuscule 1.06 BB/9 in A-ball with the Mets. In Double-A, that number jumped up to only 1.83 and at the pro-level with the Orioles, Ynoa walked just 2.08/9 innings, nearly half of what Orioles’ pitchers did last season.
He’s another guy who needs everything working well for him to be successful, however, Ynoa has the best tools of all the potential options at Buck Showalter’s disposal. There’s also the fact that he has no options remaining, so like Wright, this spring training means everything for Ynoa.
There are other names, like Hunter Harvey, David Hess, Jayson Aquino, and Miguel Castro, however many of these names will need more seasoning in the minors or are destined for a long-relief role.
Watch closely at who Showalter decides to use most often, early on. That should tip his cap to who he likes best for the fifth and final rotation spot.