Orioles have had one of the worst rotations in MLB for seven seasons

Although the Giants have made putting together a starting rotation look easy, most teams struggling to contend know how complex a process building a competent pitching staff can be. Bullpens are fickle, so consistency in run prevention is best guaranteed with a reliable rotation.

The Baltimore Orioles know the challenge better than most. The rotation at Camden Yards finished 26th in 2021 by measure of fWAR, but it was last with a 5.99 ERA and 5.41 FIP. In fact, their rotation has finished in the bottom 10 by ERA AND FIP in every season since 2014. That’s a pretty remarkable run of incompetence. It’s almost impressive, especially considering they were able to overcome those subpar rotations to make the playoffs in 2016 and finish .500 in 2015.

The Orioles invested in their rotation this offseason for the first time in GM Mike Elias’ tenure. Small as that investment was (they signed Jordan Lyles to a one-year, $7M guarantee with a team option for a second season), it’s a step in the right direction. Lyles alone isn’t going to keep the Orioles from an eighth consecutive season with a bottom-10 rotation. He made 30 starts in 2021 and finished with exactly 0.0 fWAR, after all. But he also tossed 180 innings, which makes a difference in saving a bullpen and providing enough breathing room for young rotation arms to thrive.

Forget productivity for a moment. The Orioles rotation will have a watchable rotation if and when D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez establish themselves in the majors. That duo is likely to start next season in Triple-A, but they’re close. When they arrive, there’s going to be some honest-to-god excitement around Baltimore’s rotation. That duo probably won’t have a full season in the bigs until 2023, however.

There’s at least one more season of fungible, fill-in-the-blanks taking the bump in Baltimore. Just because the big-name prospects aren’t set to arrive doesn’t mean there’s no progress to be made this season. After all, with Lyles and presumptive ace John Means, they’re in a better place than usual.

Rich Dubroff of Baltimorebaseball.com went through each of their internal candidates to fill out the rotation behind Means and Lyles. Dubroff lists Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Bruce Zimmermann as the incumbent candidates, with Zimmermann as the most accomplished of the group, even if he was most successful as a long man out of the pen.

The other way to build out the rotation, of course, is through free agency. The Orioles aren’t probably going to spend any more than they already have in terms of a one-year salary, but for free agents at the bottom of the hierarchy, Baltimore offers more opportunity than most other rotations around the game. Matt Harvey is the mold, a former star looking to rehabilitate his image.

Harvey posted 1.9 fWAR but only a 6.27 ERA, but he did make 28 starts and toss 127 2/3 innings in 2021. A 4.60 FIP suggests Harvey might have something left in the tank. Besides, amazing though this is, Harvey’s 2021 ranks as the 13th-best output by fWAR during this seven-year run of Orioles’ bottom-feeding. There simply hasn’t been much success of any kind, even the tempered brand of success offered by Harvey in 2021.

Unfortunately for Baltimore, most teams looking for midseason upgrades have higher standards than the Orioles do. Their goal for 2022 should be to add arms who might actually be flippable at the deadline. Lyles qualifies, even if his numbers from last season aren’t all that inspiring.

Others who might be available to Baltimore are Jose Urena, Mike Fiers, Aaron Sanchez and/or Mike Foltynewicz. Guys with slightly more upside — Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Chad Kuhl or Steven Brault — might cost a little more than Baltimore wants to spend. Carlos Martinez or Matthew Boyd might present the highest upside, either in terms of their current ability or their eventual trade value, but even those arms are higher up the totem pole than Baltimore has ventured in years past.

What could change that calculus is a trade of Means. There’s not a real high likelihood that Baltimore wants to move Means at this juncture, but if it means selling high on the southpaw, they might consider it. There are enough teams in need of pitching to make the Orioles listen to pitches. If they do move the 28-year-old, they’d probably be better off in the long run, but it all but guarantees another disastrous finish for their starting staff in 2022.

Frankly, Means isn’t unique enough of a talent to hold onto, should the prospect return be right. But teams also haven’t been eager to move prospects of value recently. The longer they hold onto Means, the more his salary will rise and the lesser of a trade piece he becomes.

Then again, teams generally aren’t as desperate in the offseason because there are more options available and more margin for error with a full season ahead. If they hold onto Means to start the year, he will still have a year-plus of team control at the deadline, and that might be just the right calculus to make a deal happen.

It’s not hard to blame the Orioles for holding onto Means. Prospects aren’t a sure thing. Kevin Gausman had the best season by fWAR (2016) of any Baltimore starter in this current era, and when they traded him, Zimmermann was a big part of the return. So it’s not as if trading off their starters has yielded the path to a turnaround.

The rub here is that Elias has yet to actually try to build a winning rotation. His goal since his arrival has been to build a long-term competitive engine, a process that’s still very much in the works. So they can sign more free agents, and they can trade Means or hold onto him, but until Elias is willing to really give it a go, expect Baltimore’s rotation to stay in the bottom 10.

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