Editor's Note: This article was written before the O's acquisition of Johan Santana.
The Orioles’ rotation is often described as a bunch of threes and fours. Thus, while most lack true top-end fantasy value, all contain value as streaming or deep-league options. A lot of any O's starter's value will depend on his matchups; what you will find here is an evaluation of each pitcher on his own merits. It is worth mentioning that there are off-the-mound changes in Baltimore that suggest improvement: first, there is a new coaching staff that so far is receiving positive reviews; and second, the bullpen should have more flexibility this year due to not carrying a Rule 5 pick (although there are pitchers without options), and if certain members of the bullpen are not overused, it should hold more leads, generating more wins for the starters.
Starters With Upside
Ubaldo Jimenez – A lot of ink has been spilled over Ubaldo, so I will keep the analysis relatively short here. In a nutshell: he was among the best pitchers in baseball a few years ago, then arguably among of the worst, and then very good last year. What is indisputable is that his fastball velocity has steadily decreased, and he is no longer as much of a fastball pitcher. What is also indisputable is that he walks too many batters– about four per nine innings. What is up for debate is whether his success late last season was due to “figuring it out” or to luck. While Jimenez is transitioning to the AL East with its hitters’ parks and tough lineups, he is a high-strikeout pitcher who will now be paired with a potent offense. He is one of the more unpredictable and risky picks; here's what I'm projecting:
2013 Stats: 3.30 ERA, 182.2 IP, 32 Starts, 9.6 K9, 3.9 K/BB, .8 HR/9, 114 ERA+, 1.33 WHIP, 13-9
2014 Projections: 4.28 ERA, 176 IP, 32 Starts, 8.4 K/9, 2 K/BB, 1.1 HR/9, 100 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP, 13-9
Chris Tillman – Chris Tillman struggled mightily in the majors in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2012, he posted great results in 15 starts, but many were skeptical given that those starts were mostly favorable matchups. In 2013, he proved that while his 2012 numbers may not have been repeatable, he was more the guy from 2012 than that from 2009-2011. This profile fits his billing as a former top prospect (Baseball America's #67 before 2008, #22 before 2009). In the minors, he struck out 8.9 / 9 with a 2.5/1 K/BB rate and a 1.35 WHIP. While he did have some dominant outings last year, suggesting he could take a step forward, I predict that he will likely post similar numbers. He is, however, one of the starters with upside, and so all else being equal, that makes him worthy of a pick before someone of similar expected value. He also tends to pitch deeper into games than some of his peers, allowing him to compile more wins.
2013 Stats: 3.71 ERA, 206.1 IP, 33 Starts, 7.8 K/9, 2.63 K/BB, 1.4 HR/9, 113 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP, 16-7
2014 Projections: 3.96 ERA, 204.2 IP, 33 Starts, 7.6 K/9, 2.7 K/BB, 1.4 HR/9, 109 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP, 19-7
Bud Norris – The fact that he has two strong pitches and a high strikeout rate, but fails to go deep in games, has led many Orioles fans to suggest he may be better as a closer. That said, there have been no indications that he will be moved to the bullpen, and he likely would have to fail miserably as a starter before it would be considered. Bud Norris has high upside, though, because of the solid strikeout rate; he carries some risk because of the walk rate. When combined, those two statistics lead to elevated pitch counts and an inability to last in games. While his expected value may be lower than that of rotation-mate Miguel Gonzalez, his upside is certainly higher, and I would draft accordingly based on my goals/needs. If Norris does manage to keep the free passes down, he could be very good, as he would go deeper into games, earn more outs and potentially more victories. If he fails to succeed, he could be pulled from the rotation, and he did struggle after the O's acquired him in 2013. The projections below assume a full year and that he has the most tenuous hold on a rotation spot, even though he may not technically qualify as a “fifth starter.”
2013 Stats (as starter): 4.14 ERA, 174 IP, 30 Starts, 7.4 K/9, 2.27 K/BB, .9 HR/9, 98 ERA+ (as starter and reliever), 1.47 WHIP, 10-10
2014 Projections: 4.76 ERA, 170 IP, 32 Starts, 8.0 K/9, 2.22 K/BB, 1.2 HR/9, 89 ERA+, 1.56 WHIP, 10-11
Streaming or Deep League Options
Wei-Yin Chen – Wei-Yin Chen has been a pleasant surprise to the Orioles staff. He has been remarkably consistent across his two years, though he has worn down later in the season. This offseason, he had knee surgery, which is a bit concerning for a pitcher with his history of late-season wear. Chen should be ready in April, although possibly not for his first start. Be sure to check in on his injury status as the season progresses. He is not a strikeout pitcher, and he isn't going to hurl a ton of innings, so he is not much of a high-upside commodity.
2013 Stats: 4.07 ERA, 137 IP, 23 starts, 6.8 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 1.1 HR/9, 103 ERA+, 1.32 WHIP, 7-7
2014 Projections: 3.95 ERA, 194 IP, 32 starts, 6.8 K/9, 2.7 K/BB, 1.2 HR/9, 105 ERA+, 1.30 WHIP, 15-7
Miguel Gonzalez – Miguel Gonzalez is another starter who has been a pleasant surprise and remarkably consistent. His weakness was wearing down late in games. While he is a starter I see as potentially having a great season, the fact that he is not a high strikeout pitcher who struggles to pitch into the sixth and seventh innings may limit his fantasy upside. However, he could provide some value, and he is likely more under-the-radar than his rotation mates who have similar value (Tillman) or riskier profile (Norris).
2013 Stats (as starter): 3.81 ERA, 170 IP, 28 Starts, 6.4 K/9, 2.26 K/BB, 1.3 HR/9, 111 ERA+ (as starter and reliever), 1.23 WHIP, 11-8
2014 Projections: 3.74 ERA, 190 IP, 32 Starts, 6.7 K/9, 2.28 K/BB, 1.3 HR/9, 113 ERA+, 1.21 WHIP, 16-8
Other Starting Pitcher Candidates
The Orioles have a number of candidates who are one injury away from the starting rotation. The most likely guys on the current roster are Zach Britton, Kevin Gausman, Steve Johnson, Suk-Min Yoon, Alfredo Aceves, Brian Matusz, and T.J. McFarland. Kevin Gausman has by far the most upside, but he will be discussed in more depth in the prospects piece. Steve Johnson also has some high strikeout potential, but he is more likely to be in the bullpen.
The Closer Candidates
The Orioles have not gone with a closer by committee, and have expressed no desire to do so. As a team that will likely win a fair number of games-- and if the last two years are any indication, many close games-- the Orioles’ closer will likely have value and should be available fairly cheaply in your draft as a value pick (depending upon how many relievers/closers your league uses). Tommy Hunter is the favorite to win the job at this point.
Tommy Hunter – Tommy Hunter has been extremely effective as a reliever. His velocity increased tremendously compared to his appearances as a starter, while his control increased and his home run rate diminished. Some have suggested that his inability to get lefties out and his propensity for long flies preclude him from the ninth inning, but I think he will succeed. He won't be up there with the league-leaders in strikeouts, but in deep leagues he is a definite value-pick candidate. Keep an eye on the situation as spring training progresses.
2013 Stats: 2.81 ERA, 86.1 IP, 68g, 7.1 K/9, 4.86 K/bb, 1.1 HR/9, 150ERA+, .99 WHIP, 6-5, 4 saves
2014 Projections: 1.98 ERA, 67 IP, 61g, 7.8 K/9, 4.7 kK/bb, 1.0 HR/9, 150 ERA+, 1.00 WHIP, 4-3, 50 saves
Dan Duquette preaches deep depth, and there are a number of arms fighting for spots in the Baltimore bullpen. Hunter is the current frontrunner, but be sure to keep an eye on the situation. Possible replacements include Darren O’Day, Evan Meek, Alfredo Aceves, Bud Norris, Kevin Gausman or even Dylan Bundy, come summer.