In a highly-competitive American League East, the Baltimore Orioles sit just two games back of the first-place Boston Red Sox. So what’s this fuss about needing upgrades, particularly on the starting pitching front?
The fuss has some credence. Baltimore’s Pythagorean win-loss (39-37) record suggests that their 42-34 is bound to regress. Of course, the naysayers said the same thing in 2012. But that 2012 squad went 29-9 in one-run games and had baseball’s fourth-best bullpen ERA (3.00) to secure the close wins. The starting staff was still in the bottom half of the league in ERA.
This 2013 staff has baseball’s 11th-worst bullpen ERA (3.98) and third-highest starters’ ERA (4.88).
So…it’s time for Ricky Nolasco, right?
Perhaps. That seems to be the hot name with July looming, especially given the Miami Marlins’ willingness to pull the trigger.
Nolasco wouldn’t take a huge haul of quality prospects to obtain. Merely eating the rest of his contract (about $6 million) and throwing in a few average prospects would force the Marlins’ hand.
Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported on Sunday that Nolasco could be the first pitcher to be moved. Cafardo warns us that the San Francisco Giants or Orioles could take the “plunge” sooner rather than later. In other words, Nolasco won’t be moved at the last minute. An early-July departure from Miami sounds more realistic.
However, can Nolasco actually fix Baltimore’s depleted rotation?
The obvious answer: Of course–anything would be an upgrade.
The not-so-obvious answer: The Orioles’ rotation needs more than just Nolasco. He’s not going to be their savior.
The first answer isn’t bad, and it’s accurate, but the second answer might just be the correct one.
Baltimore needs an ace, not a middle-of-the-rotation starter. They’ve used 11 starting pitchers in 2013, and only three of the 11 have compiled ERAs under four. I know, those numbers are skewed by the small sample size. After all, a good fraction of those 11 have made just one or two starts. But you get the point: quality starts have been hard to come by, which has thus led to instability.
Some stability will be regained when Wei-Yin Chen returns from an oblique injury. CBS Sports reports that Chen could be activated from the DL in early July. The southpaw made just eight starts before hitting the DL in May.
So, help is on the way. Once he returns, there figures to be three obvious choices to fill the top three spots: Chen (3.04 ERA), Miguel Gonzalez (3.75) and Chris Tillman (3.71). If Baltimore acquires Nolasco, he’d replace Freddy Garcia (5.88), who was optioned on Monday, and Jason Hammel (5.30) would round out the starting staff.
That’s not a horribly bad rotation. Chen’s return and the addition of Nolasco shores up the outlook of it slightly. If you’re still skeptical, though, you aren’t alone.
Thus far, Tillman has been pitching over his head. His 3.71 ERA borders on average, but his FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage) of 5.02 calls for a regression. FIP measures only what a pitcher can control–strikeouts, walks, home runs.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, has a 4.42 FIP. That’s a little less than a run higher than his normal ERA of 3.75. It’d be safe to assume that he will hover around the 4.00 mark for the reminder of the year.
Hammel is an interesting case. He totaled a 3.43 ERA and 3.29 FIP in 2012, but his 5.30 ERA in 2013 leaves a lot to be desired.
Despite the nearly three-mile-per-hour increase in Hammel’s fastball velocity, he’s striking out two batters less per nine innings than he did in 2012, and he’s giving up about one more home run per nine. His increased ERA, K/9 and HR/9 all match his career marks. So, 2012 is looking increasingly like a fluke.
Then there’s Nolasco, who owns a career 4.43 ERA in eight seasons with the Marlins. His current 3.68 ERA would be his best mark since 2008. That 4.43 ERA can be deceiving because he has been the victim of some atrocious defensive teams. His career 3.80 FIP would serve as a good reminder of that.
Still, we’re not looking at a set of eye-popping stats. Nolasco is amid a career year, yet his 3.68 ERA in 2013 is about average, and that might be a mark he won’t continue sustain, especially in the hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
So we’re back to the original question: how much of a difference can Nolasco make?
Not much. Maybe a couple more wins. Orioles management would be better off making a push for Cliff Lee, Josh Johnson or Matt Garza. The tier one pitchers might be out of their price range, but that’s the ideal type of addition.
Nolasco, for instance, would be a good fit for the Giants because they already have two-Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner–established starters. From there, he’d slide into the No. 3 or No. 4 slot in the rotation, which is where he ultimately belongs.
So yes, Nolasco would be an upgrade over Freddy Garcia and a handful of others, but he isn’t a pitcher who can make the Orioles’ starting pitching woes go away.