(Editor’s note: The Orioles traded left-handed reliever Brian Matusz to Atlanta for two minor-league pitchers on Monday night.)
The Orioles were pleased with the first bullpen session for Yovani Gallardo on Sunday, marking another significant step in his recovery from right shoulder tendinitis.
On the 15-day disabled list since April 23, the 30-year-old is expected to complete another bullpen in Houston before pitching a simulated game and potentially beginning a minor-league rehab assignment as early as next week. That timetable would put Gallardo in line for a return in early June, which could potentially impact a pair of struggling pitchers on the current roster.
Manager Buck Showalter said Sunday that right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez is not in danger of losing his spot in the starting rotation, but his ERA has climbed to 6.04 after he allowed six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings in a 10-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-familiar position for Jimenez and the Orioles, who replaced him in the starting rotation with Kevin Gausman two years ago in the midst of his abysmal first season with Baltimore.
As Showalter pointed out when asked about Jimenez’s status in Anaheim, however, the Orioles don’t have a clear-cut replacement this time around despite the 32-year-old pitching to a 5.79 ERA in his last 135 1/3 innings going back to last year’s All-Star break. Whether fans like it or not, the organization isn’t about to designate a pitcher for assignment who is making a total of $26.5 million over this year and 2017, but Gallardo’s return could prompt the Orioles to have a difficult conversation with Jimenez if he doesn’t fare better over his next few starts.
If young pitchers Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright continue to outperform Jimenez, the Orioles might have no choice but to put the struggling veteran in the bullpen, which could then impact another struggling hurler on the 25-man roster.
There’s little roster flexibility in the current bullpen with Mychal Givens being the only member with minor-league options, and it’d be a tough sell to say you’re doing what’s best for the club if you send your fourth-best reliever to the minors. The next names to enter the conversation would be Vance Worley — who has done an acceptable job as a long reliever — and Brian Matusz, who is currently serving as the forgotten lefty specialist who hasn’t been able to get lefties out since returning from the DL last month.
Of course, any role for Jimenez in the bullpen would more closely resemble what Worley currently does, but how much longer can the Orioles continue to carry Matusz — despite his $3.9 million salary for 2016 — if he’s not going to begin showing signs of turning his season around? He’s made just four appearances this month and lefty bats have gone 5-for-11 with a home run, a double, and five walks against him this season.
The Orioles would clearly like to have an effective lefty specialist in their bullpen, but right-handers Brad Brach and Darren O’Day have performed well enough against lefty bats to help minimize that deficiency on the roster. Carrying Jimenez in the bullpen in place of Matusz would be far from ideal and likely only a temporary measure, but the first-place Orioles haven’t suffered too much without a viable lefty specialist through the first quarter of the season and could likely endure without one for a little longer.
What’s best for Baltimore would be for Jimenez to straighten himself out to pitch more like the guy who posted an impressive 2.81 ERA in the first half of 2015 and for Matusz to regain his form against tough lefty bats in the later innings, but time could be running out for both. Something will have to give sooner than later once Gallardo is ready to return to the rotation.
The pressure is on both Jimenez and Matusz to turn their fortunes around.