Does Baltimore Need Joe Saunders Back?

There hasn’t been a lot of activity in the Orioles nest this offseason. While a lot of clamor has surrounded the Orioles attempts to re-sign Joe Saunders, the pitcher hasn’t put ink to paper yet questioning if the Orioles really do want to bring back Saunders (or sign any free agent for that matter).

The eight-year vet was shipped over in mid-August to provide some experience as the Orioles made their underdog playoff push. Saunders most notably threw the wild card play-in game against Texas and tossed 5.2 innings allowing just one run on six hits and getting the win.

Bringing back Saunders gives the Orioles pitching staff a seasoned veteran. Without Saunders (or any other available free agent starting pitcher) on the staff, the team is the most inexperienced in the division. In fact, the rotation doesn’t have a single guy that’s thrown 200 innings in a season.

Here’s how the Orioles youthful rotation stacks up against the rest of the division:

New York: 6,717.1 innings (over 43 collective seasons; 1 Cy Young award winner)
Toronto: 6,097 innings (over 41 collective seasons; 1 Cy Young award winner)
Boston: 6,086.2 innings  (over 41 collective seasons)
Tampa Bay: 2,108.2 innings  (over 17 collective seasons; 1 Cy Young award winner)
Baltimore: 1,782.2 innings  (over 17 collective seasons)

Mere innings pitched doesn’t necessarily mean that the Orioles are in bad shape. Baltimore fans would take their current rotation over five Kevin Millwoods every day (and a rotation of five Kevin Millwoods would clock them in at 13,600 innings pitched).

But the experience intangible might scare GM Dan Duquette enough to sign a veteran free agent or bring back Saunders. Without Saunders, the five starting pitchers are undeniably wet behind the ears. While it appears to be a rotation of two #2s and three #4s, this is a young rotation with plenty of time to improve.

The Young Arms

Jason Hammel has four years of experience as a starter, but never more than 176.2  innings in a single season. At times, he was terrific this past season, and at times, he was average. The righty bookended the season with his best stuff, showing he was an ace in April and September. His ERA+ was 123, well above his career average of 95. However, the shift from Mile High Stadium to Camden Yards does make a huge difference. Hammel’s 2.8 wins above replacement made him the unquestionable ace of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles rotation.

Wei-Yin Chen enjoyed a terrific rookie season. The 27-year-old Taiwanese native had a little trouble keeping guys off base, but continued to see his Ks go up throughout the season. After half a decade in Japan, he proved his stuff works in the MLB posting a 105 ERA+. Chen also chewed up the most innings tossing 195.2 in 2012.

Brian Matusz has been around the league four years now…just not consistently. In 2010, Matusz threw 175 innings and posted a 96 ERA+. But his underwhelming performance as a starter isn’t indicative of his talent level. Matusz is still young and still has plus stuff (killer changeup, above-average curve). Matusz was feeling lingering effects of an injury in 2011 and was a disaster. His 2012 campaign was an improvement, as he leaned less on his changeup (he threw it 30 percent of the time in 2011) and used it more as an out pitch. He also threw less longballs (20 percent of fly balls went yard in 2011). Matusz can fill in at #4 and is better as a #5.

Miguel Gonzalez was a huge boon in 2012. The rookie came up in May and tossed 105 innings at a 3.25 ERA. Gonzalez threw a five-hit, one-run gem in the postseason, but was dealt the loss when the bats were unable to get going. The slight-of-frame Gonzalez was a Rule 5 pickup back in 2008. His ground ball percentage could be a little higher and his line drive percentage a little lower, but for now, he’s a solid #4.

Chris Tillman has four years experience of professional experience, never throwing more than the 86 IP logged in 2012. Truthfully, you can roll his four years experience up into a season and a half. The 24-year-old has bounced between AAA and MLB since 2009. The second round draft pick features a mid 90s fastball and big looping 12-6 curve. Tillman made a statement going 9-3 this past season in 15 starts. Tillman’s another solid #4 starter for the O’s.

Waiting in the wings are second-year guy Steve Johnson, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton.

Are the Orioles going to cultivate the youngsters for future success? Not signing a front-end free agent like Kyle Lohse, Shaun Marcum, or failing to re-sign Joe Saunders is a resounding yes. While that’s not necessarily a sign that the Baltimore Orioles are sacrificing present-day success for future success (see: 2012 season) it’s a pretty good indication that another run at the AL East will be from the underdog position.

One year removed from playoff excitement, is Baltimore willing to accept a middle-of-the-pack finish in the name of grooming a young rotation?