It’s no secret that Orioles manager Buck Showalter faces a predicament with his starting rotation.
The possibilities have been discussed at length with six starters vying for five spots and Ubaldo Jimenez’s contract serving as the albatross that can’t be ignored, no matter how much fans would like the Orioles to. Fortunately, the 31-year-old right-hander has shown enough progress this spring to create cautious optimism, but what that means for the starting rotation remains to be seen.
Thursday offered a glimpse at which direction the Orioles might be leaning with less than two weeks to go until Opening Day. Appearing in only his third Grapefruit League game of the spring on Thursday, right-hander Kevin Gausman pitched an inning in relief and allowed the go-ahead two-run homer by Detroit’s Victor Martinez in a 6-4 loss.
The result was of little consequence, but it was Showalter’s revelation after the game that raises concern for how the Orioles are thinking of using the 24-year-old right-hander who last season posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts and also owned the best fielding independent pitching mark (3.41) of any member of the rotation.
“[We] might bring Gaus back shorter until everything shakes out,” Showalter told reporters. “I want him to be ready to do both things.”
Of course, the Orioles skipper is referring to Gausman pitching in relief, a role in which he thrived in the playoffs by allowing one earned run and striking out seven in eight innings. There’s no doubting that Gausman could dominate in a relief role to help fill the void of dominant reliever Andrew Miller, who departed via free agency.
But it’s a role that’s too shortsighted for both him and the Orioles over the course of a 162-game schedule. If August or September rolls around and the 2012 first-round pick isn’t one of their best four of five starters and they need the boost in the bullpen, his power arm is a major asset in the late innings and he can let it rip with the end of the season in sight.
Before then, Gausman needs to be pitching every five days and if that can’t be in Baltimore right now, he should be optioned to Triple-A Norfolk to begin the season. The Orioles want the 6-foot-3 pitcher to improve his slider — he threw a hanger to Martinez for the long home run on Thursday afternoon — and he can best do that starting for the Tides.
The truth is that a great reliever isn’t as valuable as a good starting pitcher, which Gausman proved himself to be last season. And until he shows he can’t be a good starter, the bullpen should not be Gausman’s destination so early in a season. A long relief role would provide infrequent work, and short relief is a different animal than throwing 100 pitches every five or six days and it would be obtuse to suggest one can bounce back and forth between those roles easily.
To think the Orioles will make it through the season with only five starting pitchers isn’t realistic, so what would they do if Jimenez falters or another starter gets hurt? Worse yet, what happens if both occur at the same time?
Baltimore would then be in the position of needing to turn to lower-ceiling options such as T.J. McFarland, Mike Wright, and Tyler Wilson from Triple A while trying to stretch out Gausman over the course of a few weeks. It’s a strategy that lacks efficiency and can also lead to health concerns as some opine that trying to stretch out a reliever to become a starter in the middle of a season is a significant injury risk.
Gausman has handled being yo-yoed between Baltimore and Norfolk with impressive maturity over the last two seasons, but pitchers are creatures of routine and tossing him into the bullpen at the beginning of the season is not the recipe if you want him to be an effective starter at some point this season.
Even if Gausman is one of their best five starters, I can’t fault the Orioles for trying to maximize their investment in Jimenez by giving him another shot in the rotation and if the young pitcher is the odd man out for now, so be it.
But relegating Gausman to a relief role in April isn’t the answer when looking at the big picture — in 2015 or beyond that for the promising pitcher. Showalter certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt for repeatedly showing his brilliance over the last few years, but this move wouldn’t feel right.
It might make the bullpen better for now, but such a strategy could backfire on the starting rotation for 2015. And the starting five is the key to keeping the bullpen healthy and productive over the next six months and, hopefully, beyond that.