The Likely Top Four
The Cast of Thousands
You’d think that after a shocking run to the playoffs despite having a dozen different pitchers make at least two starts — and only one make more than 20 — that the Baltimore Orioles would have done something to shore up their rotation this winter. They haven’t, so far, and while their decision is more than defensible, it doesn’t make projecting the 2013 collection any easier.
Here’s what we do know about this year’s Orioles rotation, however. We know that Joe Saunders (seven starts), Dana Eveland (two starts), and Randy Wolf (two starts) aren’t going to be part of it. We know that the top four is likely to be made up of Wei-Yin Chen, Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, & Chris Tillman, and we know with near absolute certainty that when the season ends, at least one of those four men (but likely more) will no longer be in the rotation.
Chen was actually a nice surprise for the club in his first season in America, making 32 starts as the only Baltimore starter to stick in the rotation for the entire season. He was solid if unspectacular, winning 12 games with a 4.02 ERA that was somewhat better than his 4.42 FIP, and as Jeff Zimmerman astutely noted in FanGraphs+, “his strikeout (7.2) and walks (2.7) per nine were comparable to those put up by Jon Lester (7.3, 3.0) and Derek Holland (7.4, 2.7).” Chen’s second half was nearly identical to his first, so he didn’t wear down as the season went on or get hit harder by teams getting multiple looks at him, so he seems like a safe bet for a similar season in 2013. Interestingly, ZiPS is not a fan, seeing his strikeout rate plummet to 4.86/9, but projection systems have long had difficulties with foreign veterans coming to the States, so I wouldn’t put much stock into that. Chen is miscast as Baltimore’s ace, but he’s the type of starter every team needs, including fantasy squads. Consider him draftable, yet not someone to extend yourself to get.
Hammel should join Chen at the top of the rotation, and he’s had some serious peaks and valleys over the past few years. After two deceptively good years with the Rockies in 2009-10 (3.70 FIP), he fell apart in 2011 as his strikeout rate collapsed, and he was traded to Baltimore for Jeremy Guthrie prior to 2012. Once with the Orioles, Hammel had a great season, striking out 8.6/9 while limiting homers and increasing grounders. That led to a career-best 3.43 ERA that nearly matched a FIP of 3.29. Unfortunately for Hammel, he made just 20 starts due to knee surgery and unsuccessfully attempted to return from it in September. Still, he’s had a FIP of 3.70 or below in three of the last four seasons and is coming off the best performance of his career, but he doesn’t have a lot of name recognition and has a 15-19 record over the last two seasons. Headed into his age-30 season, Hammel represents some sneaky value in the later rounds.
It’s nice that Chen & Hammel are worth discussing, because there’s a steep drop-off after those two. Gonzalez was a lifelong minor-leaguer who made his debut at 28 last year due to the endless turnover in the rotation. He won nine of his fifteen starts with a 3.25 ERA, ranking as one of the bigger surprises of the season for the Orioles. I assume I don’t need to tell you not to be fooled, because his 4.38 FIP is a clearer indicator of his mediocre skills. While Gonzalez did have an impressive run at Triple-A before being called up, little in his track record indicates it was for real, and pitchers who don’t get to the bigs until 28 generally haven’t made it for a reason. When the Baltimore bullpen stops holding on to every single lead and stranding all of his inherited runners, this stat line isn’t going to look nearly as good.
After Gonzalez is the fourth likely member of the rotation, Tillman. He’d spent three years trying to earn a regular spot, and like Gonzalez, he won nine of fifteen starts with a very good ERA (2.93) that was in no way backed by a 4.25 FIP and mediocre peripherals. It’s impossible to see another season with a .221 BABIP, and even a reported spike in velocity seems hard to believe in since his first start skewed it so badly. Despite getting his ERA below 5.40 for the first time, Tillman does not seem to be a fundamentally different pitcher than he’d ever been before, and continued injury problems (sore elbow last September, sore abdomen this spring) aren’t helping either. He’ll get some play in fantasy leagues because of the wins and ERA, but you’ll know better.
That brings us to the fifth spot and beyond, where there’s a never-ending stream of candidates. I’ve listed the entire group above for the sake of inclusion, but not all are likely to make starts. Hunter, Johnson, & Matusz, who combined for 40 starts last season, are all likely to be working out of the bullpen. Wada is returning from Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected to be an option until at least May; Mcfarland is a Rule 5 pick who probably doesn’t really have a chance to come out of this with a rotation job. Jurrjens was never really as good as he seemed in Atlanta and after a disastrous 2012, he’s looked awful in the spring, so let someone else take that chance.
While Matusz is still potentially an option, the battle for the final spot really does seem to come down to Arrieta & Britton. Each struggled to stick in the rotation last year, and each underperformed their FIP. Arrieta does seem to have the better chance of success, given that he’s increased his K/BB ratio in each of his three seasons and actually ended up with a better mark there last season than starters like Mat Latos & Ryan Dempster. That gave him a FIP of 4.05 against an ugly ERA of 6.20, so while he’s an interesting deep, deep sleeper, it’s probably worth holding off on either until someone emerges.
The real jewels here are Bundy & Gausman, of course. Neither is under consideration for a job to start the season, but it’s not difficult at all to see both in the rotation by September. Their presence is in large part why the Baltimore staff could be in flux once again all season, and while expectations should be low for them in 2013, each should be must-owns in dynasty leagues.