Daniel Clark: Pitching now the key to Orioles' winning ways

As August approaches and the Orioles hold on to the outright lead in first place, there is a growing expectation among the fan base that 2014 will be the year in which the American League East title finally returns to Baltimore for the first time since 1997.

When the Orioles went close to breaking the pennant drought in 2012, it was the strength of the bullpen (3.00 ERA) and offensive power (214 home runs) that covered up for an inconsistent starting rotation. That rotation, which saw an unsightly total of 12 pitchers appear at various times throughout the season, worked to a 4.42 ERA and there was always a fear of the rotation not holding up - especially in the playoffs.

Those who appeared at least seven times as starters during 2012 included:
* Wei-Yin Chen - 32 starts, 4.02 ERA
* Jason Hammel - 20 starts, 3.43 ERA
* Tommy Hunter - 20 starts, 5.71 ERA
* Jake Arrieta - 18 starts, 6.13 ERA
* Brian Matusz - 16 starts, 5.42 ERA
* Miguel Gonzalez - 15 starts, 3.36 ERA
* Chris Tillman - 15 starts, 2.93 ERA
* Zach Britton - 11 starts, 5.16 ERA
* Joe Saunders - 7 starts, 3.63 ERA

The other three were Steve Johnson, Dana Eveland and Randy Wolf.

The Orioles, of course, still managed to reach the playoffs via a Wild Card, and went into the postseason with a solid rotation of Saunders, Hammel, Gonzalez and Chen. As a whole, the four performed well, but the inconsistency experienced during the regular season was still one of the major causes behind the team falling just short in the division pennant race.

Fast forward to 2014 though and the picture is starting to appear vastly different. The starting rotation is consistent and is going deeper into games. This has been crucial to keeping the Orioles in first place, as the bullpen is working to a 3.44 ERA which is significantly higher than that of 2012.

Unlike the starting merry-go-round seen in 2012, the Orioles have used just seven starters in 2014, one of which is bullpen arm T.J. McFarland, who made just one start when called upon in early July.

The other six are:
* Chris Tillman - 23 starts, 3.97 ERA
* Wei-Yin Chen - 20 starts, 3.92 ERA
* Ubaldo Jimenez - 18 starts, 4.52 ERA
* Bud Norris - 17 starts, 3.94 ERA
* Miguel Gonzalez - 17 starts, 3.77 ERA
* Kevin Gausman - 9 starts, 3.67 ERA

With the exception of the struggling Jimenez, who is currently on the disabled list, the other five all own respectable ERAs of less than 4.00, which is something only two other teams in the American League can currently claim - the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays.

This consistency is starting to reap the rewards as well, with the Orioles rotation excelling during the months of June and July:
* June - 27 Games, 13 Quality Starts, 3.60 ERA
* July - 23 Games, 12 Quality Starts, 3.42 ERA

With the starting pitching being in such a good place, the only question remaining is what happens when Jimenez is healthy and available? His performances have been the worst of the six by far and at times, he seems to be unwilling to attack the strike zone, which is hurting the team. In 99 2/3 innings of work, he has allowed a staggering 60 walks, which is comfortably the worst ratio of all qualifying pitchers in the major leagues.

An old adage I have always lived by is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," but I've never had $48 million to consider when making any of my life's choices.

Gausman is the future of this team and needs to maintain his spot in the rotation on the back of his impressive performances thus far. Tillman has bounced back well after a rough start to the season and as recent history suggests, he is the leader of the rotation. That leaves Norris, Chen and Gonzalez and despite the occasional rumor, do any of these three really deserve to be demoted to the bullpen? I don't think so.

Of course, that then leaves the option of a six-man rotation.

There are many possibilities and it's certainly a good conundrum for Buck Showalter to have. For all we know, a trade may still be made before the deadline and that will throw yet another starter in the works.

What are your thoughts? I'd love you to share them via comment below.

Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @DC_TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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