Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Rotation key to O's chances in AL East

MLB.com @philgrogers

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Chris Tillman was an easy choice to start on Opening Day for the Baltimore Orioles a year ago. But manager Buck Showalter isn't in a hurry to name his No. 1 starter this season.

Yovani Gallardo, whose signing was made official on the day the Orioles lost Dexter Fowler to the Cubs, seems like the most likely choice. After all, the O's starters were 14th in the American League in ERA last year and lost Wei-Yin Chen to free agency.

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Chris Tillman was an easy choice to start on Opening Day for the Baltimore Orioles a year ago. But manager Buck Showalter isn't in a hurry to name his No. 1 starter this season.

Yovani Gallardo, whose signing was made official on the day the Orioles lost Dexter Fowler to the Cubs, seems like the most likely choice. After all, the O's starters were 14th in the American League in ERA last year and lost Wei-Yin Chen to free agency.

Spring Training: Tickets | Schedule | Complete info

This rotation is an unlikely dilemma for an organization with a rich pitching history and a farm system that not so long ago included some of the most highly regarded arms in the Minor Leagues. But re-signing Chris Davis was the priority for ownership and executive vice president Dan Duquette this offseason, not swimming in the deep waters to sign David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto or Jordan Zimmermann.

With Davis back and both Adam Jones and Manny Machado in their primes, the Orioles have a lineup that nobody will want to face. The key to contending for a playoff spot in the balanced AL East is getting better results from holdover starters Miguel Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez and Tillman, as well as the continuing development of Kevin Gausman.

Video: Gausman ready to help O's get back on track in 2016

"That's the challenge, if we can kind of revert back a little bit,'' Showalter said. "It wasn't like they were bad all the time [last year]. They had a lot of good outings. Each guy's a little different. Somebody asked me the other day if I'd take Ubaldo's season last year. Ubaldo had the lowest walk average of his career [3.3 per nine innings]. But I think Ubaldo knows there's another level there.''

Tillman knows the responsibility he and his fellow starters carry. He won 16 games with a 3.71 ERA for a third-place team in 2013 and then lowered his ERA to 3.34 while leading the AL in starts the following year, when Baltimore won 96 games before losing to the Royals in the AL Championship Series. Tillman was 11-11 with a 4.99 ERA last season.

"I'm going to speak for myself here,'' Tillman said. "I need to execute better. I had a good game plan, the same stuff. I didn't get any worse. I just didn't execute as well, didn't make my pitches. That's the way to get better. You've got to try to improve on the things you're good at and work on the things you're not as good at. I don't think we're going backwards. I think we're getting better.''

Chen, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Marlins, was never intended to be the No. 1 starter. Duquette signed him from Taiwan and Gonzalez as a Minor League free agent with the thought that the pair would complement the rotation behind Tillman and, in time, Dylan Bundy and top prospect Hunter Harvey. But Tillman's changeup and curveball have been hit hard at times while injuries complicated the path to the Major Leagues for Bundy and Harvey.

Duquette has been left with a rotation that has had depth but no All-Stars the past couple of seasons.

"Everyone talks about how you [need to] have an ace, an Opening Day starter, this guy, that guy, [line 'em up] one through five,'' Tillman said. "That's cool for the media and the fans. But for us, we're only as good as the starter going out every day. Every game is just as important. Yesterday's game is just as important as today's game. We have all the parts. Our best guy is the guy going that night. I don't look into that stuff.''

Video: Chris Tillman on getting ready for 2016

Gallardo turns 30 on Saturday. He's younger than Jimenez and Gonzalez, but he could quickly become the staff leader after reworking his agreement to a two-year deal with a third-year option after an MRI showed a seemingly minor issue in his shoulder.

The irony about the Orioles forcing Gallardo to jump through hoops in the signing process is he's one of the most reliable starters in the Majors -- 30-plus starts seven years in a row and a career 3.66 ERA. He threw more sliders and fewer fastball last season, and he finished with a 3.42 ERA for the Rangers, the lowest of his career.

"I think Yovani helps us because he's shown us he's a very dependable starter,'' Duquette said. "He's up to the challenge of going against the best pitchers, and he's done that in the course of his career. I think when you have dependable starting pitchers and you have the experience that Yovani has, the other pitchers, the younger pitchers, they have a good role model.''

It wasn't missed by the O's that Gallardo was the rare pitcher who moved to the AL from the National League and got better results. Nor that he's excelled at Milwaukee's Miller Park and Globe Life Park in Arlington. Gallardo won't be intimidated by the dimensions of Camden Yards.

"Look at the stadiums I have pitched in,'' Gallardo said. "I wouldn't consider [Miller Park] a good pitcher's park, to be honest, and Texas. You know what? I'm up for the challenge. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm going to go out there and compete."

Duquette also added Vance Worley and Odrisamer Despaigne as potential depth pieces. Bundy is likely to be on the Opening Day roster because he's out of options, but he is ticketed for a bullpen role, at least in the first half of the season.

With solid work from the rotation, the Orioles could get back some of the luster they had before running into the Royals in the 2014 ALCS.

"Our division really can go to anybody,'' shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "I think everybody's got a good team. It's just going to focus more on smaller things, the camaraderie in the clubhouse, how everybody plays as a team. Every team is good. It's going to take a special team to win.''

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Baltimore Orioles