The wins may have come, but the fans have not returned to Baltimore. Despite going to the postseason in 2012, and winning 85 games in 2013, the Orioles still finished a distant 18th among all MLB teams in attendance last season. Meanwhile, their costs are rising as arbitration eligible players demand higher salaries, and as evidenced by the early offseason trade (read: salary dump) of Jim Johnson, who recently agreed to a one year 10 million dollar deal with the Athletics to avoid arbitration, owner Peter Angelos are feeling the sting on his wallet.
Chris Davis, the Bunyan of Baltimore, will earn $10.35 million this year and up to 15 million the next, before likely commanding a 100 million deal in free agency (assuming he continues to hit), catcher Matt Weiters is in the same boat, albeit for slightly less money, third baseman Manny Machado will see his salary skyrocket once he becomes arbitration eligible after 2014, and power hitting shortstop J.J. Hardy could land a deal worth up to fifty million dollars when he enters free agency after this season. With little offense coming up from the minors, Baltimore’s lineup is either going to become very expensive or very weak, very soon.
That’s why GM Dan Duquette would be foolish to give anything more than a one year deal to starters Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Ervin Santana. He would be wise to save as much future payroll space as possible for his ever-costlier hitters, because with the pitching prospects they have, Baltimore is unlikely to need to spend much on the mound for foreseeable future.
Injuries and major league struggles have overshadowed some of the more salient and positive attributes of the Orioles’ young hurlers, particularly of Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Bundy missed all of last season thanks to Tommy John surgery, but expects to return this June, when he will still be only 21 years old. It’s easy to forget that just a year and a half ago, he had torn through the minor leagues at the age of 19, pitching to a 2.08 ERA and 10.4 K/9 across three levels and finishing off the year with a pair of shutout relief appearances. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him as the 11th best prospect in the game mid-way through last season and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo described him as being, “as dynamic as any pitcher in the minor leagues,” thanks to a mid-90′s fastball and a pair of plus offerings in his change up and curveball.
Now Bundy may not actually return by June, as he hopes, and he may need extra time to get back into a rhythm, but Tommy John surgery should certainly not be a taken as a death sentence, or even much of an obstacle. According to a report compiled by injury analyst Will Carrol of the Bleacher Report, one third of all active major league pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery at some point during their careers, including such notables as Adam Wainwright, Jordan Zimmerman, and Stephen Strasburg, all of whom eventually returned with tremendous success. It is more than realistic to think Bundy will be an integral part of the Orioles’ 2015 rotation.
Kevin Gausman may not have Bundy’s ace potential, but he’s healthy and has already made a few starts for Baltimore. Granted, he struggled when called up last year, but that was partially because he seemingly forgot he had a changeup, throwing it only a couple times per start. That being said, the former fourth overall pick’s slow-ball is a plus pitch and once he shakes off the nerves and learns to use it in major league games, he should start realizing his number two starter potential. His 3.11 ERA and 2.44 FIP in Double-A are a lot more indicative of Gausman’s talent than his 5.66 major league ERA. Moreover, he was victimized by an inflated BABIP and some fluke home runs as his FIP in Baltimore was a much more respectable 3.99, and his xFIP was even better at 3.04. If the Orioles fail to sign another starting pitcher, Gausman will be the favorite to take the fifth starter spot, where he could then realistically compete for the AL Rookie of the Year.
Lastly, there is the oft-forgotten third pitcher, Eduardo Rodriguez, who, while less talented than Gausman or Bundy, is still a prosepct in his own right. He has three potentially above average pitches in his fastball, change up, and slider, and his command is decent for a 20 year old lefthander. Although he ran into some trouble in Double-A the second half of last season, he was pitching against largely older competition and his peripherals – 3.6 BB/9 and 8.6 K/9 – indicated he was better than his ERA showed. Considering their unwillingness to include him in a trade for Mets first baseman Ike Daivs this offseason, the Orioles certainly think somewhat highly of him. Keith Law does too, ranking him as the 44th overall prospect in baseball this past summer. He could see major league action as soon as this summer and contend for a rotation spot by 2015.
Meanwhile, the Orioles’ top position prospect is second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who posted a .697 OPS at Triple-A last offseason. The Orioles’ lineup has been their strength over the last couple seasons, and they’re going to need a lot of money to keep it that way. Best not to waste that cash on an expensive veteran starter when there is a trio of cheap youngsters just waiting for their shot.