If he pitches well, Kevin Gausman could send message to other starters

With strong start Wednesday vs. Tigers, right-hander could force Orioles to keep him in rotation

May 13, 2014|Peter Schmuck

On a purely strategic level, there's no reason to look for any deeper meaning in the decision by the Orioles on Tuesday to call up top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman and insert him into the starting rotation to face Justin Verlander in the series finale against the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday afternoon.

No great mystery there. The Tigers are 9-2 against left-handed starters this season, and Wei-Yin Chen — who happens to throw from that side — matches up better against the Kansas City Royals and can use the extra day off.

The alternative to bringing up Gausman was to send Miguel Gonzalez back to the mound on three days' rest against one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball after delivering his longest outing of the year on Saturday night.

Throw in the uncertainty created by the dustup involving Bud Norris on Monday, as well as some question about Chris Tillman's health, and it all makes perfect sense.

So, even if Buck Showalter does not want to call Gausman's first major league appearance of 2014 a spot start, it pretty much is what it is. The bigger question is what it could mean if Gausman goes out and silences the Tigers the way he did when he gave up just a run over six innings last June in his third major league start.

This is the point that the manager is supposed to use a cliche like "happy dilemma," or "a good problem to have," but Showalter carefully tiptoed around the immediate possibilities that now lie in front of his starting rotation. Obviously, Gausman is in a position to force his way back into the picture after making five starts early last season, but it is a bigger and more complicated picture than it was back then.

"I'm going to wait to see how everything goes,'' Showalter said. "I'm not going to commit one way or the other. It's just kind of where we are, and we felt like the adjustment was something we needed to make. We had the flexibility to do it, and we'll see how it shakes out."

It's easy to get hung up on Gausman and where he stands at this early point in his professional career. His call-up in 2013 generated great excitement because of his tremendous potential, while his return to the major leagues this week is more of an indication that the Orioles are finally close to the point that they can shore up the rotation without losing a pitcher because of injury or total ineffectiveness.

Gausman appears ready to help. Dylan Bundy is getting closer to returning from Tommy John surgery and was clocked at 93 mph in a live batting practice session Tuesday. In addition, the Orioles have been pleased with the progress of two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who signed a make-good deal that could pay off in a big way if he can come back at midseason from major shoulder surgery.

"Yeah, the potential's there,'' Showalter said. "I don't worry about how it's going to fit. Unfortunately, in today's game, it always seems to have a way of fitting. We've got some tough calls on personnel this year, but not necessarily with pitchers. I think we're getting ready to head down that road before long, if we're healthy."

This is where it becomes a sensitive issue. The Orioles have five starters who are effective enough to stay in the rotation as long as they're healthy, but all of them have had pitch-efficiency issues that could wear down the bullpen — as they did last year — if they persist into the second half of the season.

The presence of Gausman isn't yet a message to certain members of the rotation that the status quo is not going to be good enough to get the Orioles deep into the postseason, but it could quickly turn into that if he refuses to let go of the opportunity. Showalter looks at the team in the visitors' dugout and sees what he hopes is the future in his own.

"As good as Detroit is, their backbone is those starters they run out there,'' he said. "Offense comes and goes. Defense shouldn't go into a slump, attitude shouldn't go into a slump, effort shouldn't go into a slump, and quite frankly, starting pitching quite seldom goes into a slump, if you're quality.

"That's where we're trying to get, if we want to get where we want to go later in the season."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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