Long a weakness for Orioles, starting rotation full of potential this year

Long a weakness, starting rotation could be one of top strengths in '14

March 27, 2014|By Dan Connolly The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — When Ubaldo Jimenez was about to sign the biggest free-agent deal for a pitcher in Orioles franchise history, he considered the rotation he was joining.

Frankly, he didn't know much about it. He had pitched with Miguel Gonzalez years ago in a minor league all-star game. He knew of Bud Norris from their seasons competing against each other in the National League.

Jimenez, 30, had pitched against the Orioles only twice in his eight-season major league career — both last season with the Cleveland Indians. The first time, in June, he faced Zach Britton, whom Jimenez essentially has knocked out of the 2014 rotation. Then, in September, Jimenez pitched against Chris Tillman, who walked a season-high five batters in that shaky outing.

It's fair to say Jimenez wasn't exactly expecting a replica of the 1971 Orioles rotation with four 20-game winners to meet him at the clubhouse door. What he has seen so far, though, has thoroughly impressed him — especially Tillman, 25, who will be the club's Opening Day starter.

"I saw Tillman's numbers last year. I couldn't see him pitch much, but I heard about him," Jimenez said. "When I got here, I looked at the videos and looked at his numbers and said, 'Wow. He has some nasty stuff. He is tough.'"

Because of the projected rotation's experience, relatively young age and potential upside, Jimenez believes this could be the best rotation of which he has been a part in his lengthy career.

"Yes, it has the potential to be, because, in Cleveland, we had a good rotation, but we had some younger guys just coming up," Jimenez said. "But these guys are more proven over here because they have [had] to face the toughest division in the whole major leagues. I mean, you throw against the best, and it makes you better."

Signs of promise

The Orioles rotation certainly has taken its lumps in the American League — and AL East — over the years. Dating to 2000, the starting rotation's ERA has been in the bottom third of the major leagues every season and twice (in 2008 and 2011) was the worst in the majors.

The 2012 team's 4.42 starters' ERA was the best in that span, and it was still 21st overall and 10th of 14 AL teams. Last year's rotation had a 4.57 ERA, 27th in the majors and 12th of 15 teams in the AL.

And the Orioles essentially have the same personnel returning, with the exception of Jimenez, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal in February after going 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts for the Indians last year.

The Orioles hope he'll both lead and stabilize the rotation while the rest of the starters take another step forward.

"I don't know yet for sure because the bell hasn't rung, but I think [signing Jimenez] is huge for us. I think it only makes us better," Tillman said. "He's a guy who has been around for a while, and he is a guy we can go to and ask questions, and he's coming to us asking questions."

Tillman emerged as the club's top starter last year when he became the first Orioles pitcher since Mike Mussina in 1999 to win at least 16 games in a season. He posted a 3.71 ERA in a career-best 2061/3 innings.

"Chris Tillman is a totally different pitcher now. He knows how to pitch. He has a little more experience now," Gonzalez said. "I'm happy for him and proud for him."

Gonzalez, 29, posted his second consecutive sub-4.00 ERA in 2013, going 11-8 with a 3.78 ERA in 30 games (28 starts). He missed roughly three starts because of a right thumb blister in May. He is expected to be slotted fourth in the rotation behind Wei-Yin Chen, 28, who was 7-7 with a 4.07 ERA while missing two months with a strained oblique.

"I'm looking forward to [Wei-Yin Chen] being out there every fifth day for us all season," manager Buck Showalter said. "Him and Miggy would be good additions for us if we could have two guys like that that are there every fifth day."

The Orioles would also like to see what Norris, 29, can do for a full season with the club. He was acquired from the Houston Astros for outfielder L.J. Hoes and impressive left-handed pitching prospect Josh Hader in July.

It was a steep price, but the Orioles believed Norris, who was 6-9 with a 3.93 ERA last year in Houston, would thrive pitching in front of a quality defense and for an explosive offense. The results were mixed, and he finished the year with a 4-3 record and 4.80 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) with the Orioles while dealing with elbow soreness in September.

'Quality depth' this year

Norris believes the best is yet to come for him and the other members of the rotation.

"I think we all can feed off each other," Norris said. "A lot of our guys are still young enough that they are still heading into the primes of their careers. Chen and Gonzalez and Tillman and myself, we still have a lot of years ahead of us. And that goes for Ubaldo, too."

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