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Bernhardt: Orioles rotation one injury away from disaster

SARASOTA, FL - MARCH 07: Kevin Gausman (39) of the Orioles delivers a pitch to the plate during the spring training game between the WBC's Dominican Republic and the Baltimore Orioles on March 07, 2017 at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

Kevin Gausman had a strong outing for the Baltimore Orioles in their spring training game against the Detroit Tigers on Sunday afternoon, which is good. He needs to be in top form to start the season. The Orioles don’t have much anyone else.

The big news out of camp for the Orioles has been the increasing seriousness of the shoulder injury suffered by putative Baltimore ace Chris Tillman. It’s also been some of the only news, given that stars Adam Jones and Manny Machado have been away from camp on their respective World Baseball Classic teams, along with a smattering of other Baltimore players — Jonathan Schoop with the Netherlands, Welington Castillo with the Dominican Republic, Vidal Nuno with Mexico, and Mychal Givens alongside Jones with Team USA, though all but Jones and Schoop have started making their way back to Florida — and the only other real occasion of note has been the return of Pedro Alvarez, attempting to make the team as a corner outfielder.

That’s usually good news. Nothing good ever comes out of spring training, something fans quickly remember once the shine of something that looks like baseball being on television again wears off. Even the nominally encouraging things, like this minor leaguer you vaguely remember from the prospect lists two years ago showing off a shiny new pitch or that Rule 5 pick putting together great at-bats while playing all over the diamond; these are mostly fever dreams. They’ll be gone before April, even if the players themselves somehow remain. Guys hurting themselves, though — the forearm strains, the busted knees, the strained obliques; these are very real, and they will have very real consequences when the season begins. All fans really want out of spring training is for their team to get through it to the other side.

Didn’t work so well for Tillman. He had shoulder problems to end last year but pitched through them for the Orioles’ one-game wild card playoff in Toronto; he hoped the injury would heal over the offseason, but was still having problems in mid-December, and by January had resigned himself to rehabbing the shoulder this spring, rather than doing his usual preseason preparations. The initial hope was that Tillman would be back in early to mid-April, but by now everyone knows to hold their breath on pitcher injury evaluation. The other shoe dropped this week when Tillman had to get a cortisone shot in his shoulder and the Orioles shut him down again, conceding that he would miss all of April as he targeted extended spring training to get himself ready for the year.

Well that’s fine, right? The Orioles have other pitchers, don’t they?

September 28, 2016: Baltimore Orioles Starting pitcher Chris Tillman (30) [6662] pitches during the game between the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in Toronto, ON. (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire)

Assuming that Gausman will be named the opening day starter as he deserves, the O’s are one injury to him away from having Ubaldo Jimenez pitch game one. And they’re two injuries away from “opening day starter Wade Miley.”

The prospective rotation looks like this without Tillman: Gausman, former phenom and converted reliever Dylan Bundy, Jimenez, Miley, and currently projected in the fifth spot, Mike Wright. This is a bottom-third rotation in the league –that applies with Tillman, too, in all fairness — and it absolutely cannot sustain another injury, especially not to one of the top two guys.

Bundy’s had a putrid spring so far — a 7.36 ERA in 11 IP, with 7 strikeouts to 4 walks — but spring numbers, again, don’t mean much. The real question mark surrounding him is that Bundy’s never thrown more than 110 innings in a year, and expecting more than 160 out of him in 2017 might be pushing it. After Bundy…well, the Orioles have a whole lot of faith in Wade Miley, whose singular distinguishing characteristic is that he throws left-handed, and Ubaldo is under contract through the end of the year. Neither of those things really recommend them to their job. Both were putrid last season, though at least Ubaldo’s 2016 can be parsed to show an upward swing in effectiveness at the very end of the year.

The name to watch in Baltimore, then, is Gabriel Ynoa. Yes, there’s also Vidal Nuno and Logan Verrett, Tyler Wilson and Chris Lee, and they’ll all get their shots, but Gabriel Ynoa — whom the Orioles got from the pitching-flush New York Mets for cash — is the only guy in that group with both youth and some dubious sort of upside on his ledger. His fastball hovers in the mid-nineties, and he’s occasionally flashed a 90 mph slider against Grapefruit League opponents; that might be due to a hot gun or a guy trying to make the team overthrowing, or it might be something new. He’s only thrown 8.2 innings this spring (3.12 ERA), but he’s struck out six against two walks in those innings.

Ynoa represents something of a Hail Mary pass for the Orioles — the Mets, who know pitching, got to see 18.1 IP of him last year and after seeing him pitch to a 6.38 ERA decided that was enough — but Baltimore’s a team that needs arms like that right now. It’s a whole lot better than constantly signing guys like Nuno, or trading for guys like Wade Miley, who are both bad and completely known quantities.

With Tillman hurt, any number of guys on the cusp with Baltimore have the chance to step up — and if the back of the O’s rotation pitches like history suggests they might, no one else will have to get hurt at all for them to eventually get the chance to show their stuff.

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