The Orioles’ strategy over the last few seasons has been plain to see: Hit a bunch of home runs to (hopefully) take leads and then rely on a lights-out bullpen to take care of the rest.

It has largely been an effective strategy, at least if getting into the postseason is your goal. They say that as long as you make the playoffs, anything can happen, and the O’s have given themselves a chance at a championship by doing just that in three of the past five seasons — despite playing in the wealthy and powerful AL East.

But despite all of this, it’s been pretty clear that the strategy only gets you so far. Once you start playing the good teams – those stacked with powerful lineups, strong bullpens and frightening starting rotations – the Orioles suddenly find themselves outmanned. They have a 2-8 record in those three playoff appearances to prove it.

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We can nit-pick the reasons for this happening, and the dangers of an all-or-nothing offense, a declining defense, and a manager forgetting he has the best reliever in the AL available in extra innings of a play-in game would all be among them. 

But we all know what the real weakness is here. It’s the starting rotation.

Facing a weak free agent market and financial restraints, the Orioles’ starting staff probably won’t look a whole lot different in 2017. That being said, there are some reasons for optimism as we head toward spring training. Let’s take a look:

Chris Tillman

Tillman will always be remembered as part of the awesome haul the O’s got in the Erik Bedard trade of 2008, a deal that also netted Adam Jones. But while the Mariners would gladly hit the rewind button on that deal, Tillman has never quite blossomed into the ace everyone expected him to be.

He was going to come in and breathe fire from the mound, unleash 95 mph heat from his 6-5 frame and strike everybody out, right? Instead, he has become a guy who throws in the low 90s, strikes out maybe seven per nine innings and produces an ERA that inevitably lands in the 3.50-4.00 range. That’s not bad, but it’s not ace material.

At 28 years old (he’ll be 29 on April 15), Tillman probably is about as good as he’ll ever be – a No. 1 or 2 starter on the Orioles, a 2 or 3 on a good staff. In a possible sign of maturity, Tillman used his four-seam less last season, going more frequently to his cutter and slider.

Could an increasing trust in his off-speed offerings help Tillman develop into the ace O’s fans have dreamed he would be? That’s a doubtful proposition, but even a small improvement – say 210 innings with a 3.20 ERA and 7.8 Ks per nine – would be a huge benefit to the Orioles’ rotation.

Kevin Gausman

Ladies and gentlemen, meet your 2016 Orioles pitching WAR leader. Yes, that’s right, it wasn’t Tillman and it wasn’t Zach Britton. It was Gausman, and the 26-year-old right-hander figures to be the O’s ace in 2017 and perhaps for the foreseeable future.

In his first full season as a starter, Gausman showed flashes of what could be coming – 179.2 innings, 174 strikeouts, only 47 walks and a 3.61 ERA. You’d like to see him cut down on the home runs (a team-worst 28), but the tools and the makeup appear to be there.

Even more promising, he did not tire as his innings piled up, sporting a 2.45 ERA in August and a 3.18 ERA in September. His key stats in the second half (3.10 ERA, 93 innings, 92 strikeouts, 1.258 WHIP) all outpaced his first-half numbers, a sign that more work and more experience will produce a positive outcome.

Having fallen just short of 180 innings in 2016, Gausman is poised to handle a workload of 200-plus innings and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a low-3s ERA and 190-200 strikeouts to go with it.

If you’re looking for an ace, Gausman is your most likely candidate.

Dylan Bundy

I was at Dodger Stadium on July 6 when Bundy entered the game in sixth inning in relief of Gausman. He pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings that day, striking out seven in what would be a 6-4 Orioles victory in 14 innings. Bundy got 15 swinging strikes that day and I remember thinking at the time: “They need to make this guy a starter.”

Of course things are more complicated than that and Bundy’s journey has been well-documented, but that’s what happened. Bundy had mixed results in his 14 starts last year, striking out 72 in 71 1/3 innings but walking too many (30) and allowing too many home runs (15).

Still there were signs that Bundy’s future as a starter hold promise, such as the seven-inning, one-hit outing vs. Texas and season-ending, one-run performance vs. Arizona. And when you look at the numbers, the fact that he allowed just five hits (.143 average) and ZERO home runs on his curveball certainly stands out.

Bundy wasn’t drafted No. 4 overall in 2011 to be a long reliever and it says here he’s got the stuff to be a top-end starter. The problem is that with only 109.2 innings under his belt in 2016, the Orioles will have to bring him along carefully and monitor his workload.

Bundy should emerge at some point, but he likely won’t bloom in full until 2018 at the earliest.

Ubaldo Jimenez

Jimenez revised his mechanics in 2015 and the result was a career-low walk rate of 3.3 per nine innings. Then, for some reason he was allowed to revert to his old mechanics in 2016, and the results were disastrous.

When he finally went back to his 2015 self, Jimenez was good again, logging a 2.82 ERA in the second half. His September was fantastic, striking out 31 in 35 innings with a 2.31 ERA.

Can Jimenez put together a prolonged stretch of success with improved mechanics? Anything is possible, but there is little in his history to suggest it will happen. With Jimenez, it’s never been a question of stuff – he’s got stuff in bunches – it’s always been about command. In other words, he’s never had any. His career walk rate of 4.1 per nine innings will always offset the strikeouts and there is no reason to expect that to improve much now at the age of 33 (on Jan. 22).

That being said, if he can get near his career ERA of 4.13 the Orioles would certainly take that from their fourth or fifth starter.

Wade Miley

Miley is the token lefty in the Orioles’ rotation, and judging by his results in 2016, you wonder if he should try pitching right-handed. He had been pretty awful with Seattle before the Orioles acquired him at the trade deadline. Then he was even worse with Baltimore, allowing 70 hits in 54 innings (11.7 hits per nine) and a 6.17 ERA.

The 30-year-old didn’t walk a lot of guys, but he got hit hard and often. Here are what opposing batters hit against Miley’s pitches in 2016:

Four-seam fastball: .291, .480 slugging

Slider: .255, .412 slugging

Change: .311, .479 slugging

Curve: .280, .520 slugging

Two-seam fastball: .338, .493 slugging

These numbers are obviously pretty bad and what’s worse is this is pretty much the way Miley has been trending since his solid 2013 season in Arizona. It would be overly optimistic to expect much more out of Miley at this point while pitching in that ballpark and in that division. Which leads me to the final point …


Chris argued that the Orioles would be smart to bring free agent Jason Hammel back into the fold, if for no other reason that he’s not only pretty good, he’s also available.

I’d second that notion and add that in doing so you would also limit your exposure to both Miley and Jimenez (and potentially Mike Wright) and give yourself an opportunity to bring Bundy along slowly.

If not Hammel, a guy like Colby Lewis (3.71 ERA, 1.126 WHIP in 19 starts for Texas) or Travis Wood would be a nice and affordable piece for the back of the rotation. Wood was great in the Cubs bullpen last season, but has had success as a starter in the past, including a 200-inning 2013 season in which he was an All-Star with a 3.11 ERA.

The Orioles aren’t going to have the best rotation in the AL East next season, that would be Boston. They probably won’t be as good as Toronto either. But with that bullpen they don’t need to be.

Even with all the struggles they had last season, the Orioles pitching staff still ranked 14th in WAR in all of MLB.

While the starters ranked 18th as a group, they could move up into the upper half just with a little bit of luck, as well as some progression from Tillman, Gausman and Bundy. That sort of improvement could push the pitchers as a whole into the top 10 in baseball.

That could be the difference between a team that merely contends to make the playoffs and one that actually competes once it gets there.

Bob Harkins
Bob Harkins

Orioles Analyst

Bob Harkins is a veteran journalist who has worked as a writer, editor and producer for numerous outlets, including 13 years at He is also the creator of the Razed Sports documentary podcast and the founder of Story Hangar, a network of documentary podcasters.