SARASOTA, Fla. – The Orioles signed veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson in December to give them innings in a rotation thin on track-record starters, and to provide leadership in a youthful clubhouse. They knew that much.
What evolved later was his placement atop the rotation.
Gibson has been chosen as the Opening Day starter for the Orioles' game on March 30 against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The club made the announcement this morning, about 9 ½ hours before he steps on the mound to face the Yankees’ split-squad team in Sarasota.
So much for projections earlier that Gibson could slot near the back end.
Gibson has made four starts and allowed two runs and 11 hits with no walks and 13 strikeouts in 14 innings this spring. He’s been chosen twice to pitch on Opening Day in 10 major league seasons, also earning the assignment with the Rangers in 2021.
“It was fun to break the news to him a few days ago,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “This is going to be his second one, and what a great honor, and he’s earned every bit of it. We’re happy to have him and happy that he’s going to be out there for Opening Day.
“If you look at our rotation, we have some guys who don’t have a whole lot of years, and Kyle’s the obvious choice from a years standpoint, and a veteran in the pitching staff and the rotation. We kind of wanted to see what everybody looked like, honestly, and not make any snap decisions, but I think as camp went along that it was pretty obvious.”
Gibson didn’t make any assumptions.
“I don’t know that you ever really have it figured out until they tell you,” he said. “Coming into a new organization, you kind of never really know. I don’t know all about these guys, how they pitched last year, how they finished, where they see these guys in the future. I’m still learning some of that. And they think about pitching matchups, they think about the rotation, where do you put (Cole) Irvin, where you put different guys, so it’s never something I feel like you assume it’s going to happen.”
Taking a second crack at the opener could close the wounds from his previous effort. Gibson retired one batter and allowed five runs and four hits with three walks in a 14-10 loss in Kansas City.
“Getting another chance at it, I don’t think it means, ‘Hey, ace,’ or anything like that. I don’t look at it like that,” he said.
“I think there’s maybe 15 aces in the league. There’s not 30. So, for me, it’s just the chance to start a series off, and I think that first game of every series is really important, whether it’s the first series of the year or even in Texas. I mean, that first guy really kind of sets the tone for how that bullpen is used the next three games, until the next off-day, especially. So, I think for me, it’s just trying to go out there and be a veteran leader and try to set the tone for that first series of the year.”
Gibson, who’s 89-91 with a 4.52 ERA in 267 career games, didn’t dwell on being a newcomer taking the ball first and what that represents. Whether it’s an unusual circumstance. He can be a deep thinker, but he stayed on the surface.
“I’m trying to not worry too much about any of it, really, and trying to focus on the work every day,” he said. “I understand that September I had (9.73 ERA in six starts) wasn’t how I wanted to pitch last year, so there’s certain things I want to get better at, and worrying way less about where I’m going to pitch in the rotation and more about how I’m going to pitch whenever I get the chance. It works out this time that I get to throw the first one.
“It does mean a lot. I don’t want to downplay that, because it is cool. I’ve only been in uniform one time (during a game) my entire career on the first day of the season, so it is a big deal. It’s fun to be on the field for that first game, but it’s not necessarily something I came here and said, ‘OK, I want to work to be the Opening Day guy. I knew there were things that I wanted to get better at along the way to make sure that over 30 starts that I was pitching how I wanted to pitch.”
The mindset that Gibson brings into this year’s assignment won’t differ much from 2021.
"Similarly to now, in Texas, once again I kind of saw, maybe, the writing on the wall, being the veteran there at the time, so I think it's a similar approach for me here,” he said. “Trying to not make too much of it. Hopefully, that first time that I've done it, you can get some of the extra nerves out. But I have a little bit of anxiety and nerves every start, so you figure out how to use that and you figure out how to use that adrenaline in the right way. And hopefully, that first experience gives me a little bit of a learning curve to do a little bit better this time."
Gibson followed that disastrous appearance at Kauffman Stadium by tossing six scoreless innings against the Blue Jays at home. He allowed only three earned runs in 33 innings in five starts to close out April. He posted a 2.33 ERA and 0.852 WHIP in four May starts and a 1.52 ERA and 1.011 WHIP in five June games.
“I think I might've had the biggest drop in ERA from one start to No. 2,” he said, laughing, “so we'll see if we can avoid that this time."
The Orioles will take a similar run, minus the first-game crash. They’ll take what he’s done this spring.
“He’s shown me exactly what I’ve seen facing him for the last seven-plus years,” said backup catcher James McCann. “He attacks, he’s not afraid, he’s a leader. He understands who he is as a pitcher, and he goes out and is that. He doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not.
“He’s a guy who’s going to eat innings. He’s a guy that, every time he takes the ball he’s going to give you a chance, and he’s a guy who attacks them. And your defense loves guys like that, who’s filling up the zone.”
Asked whether Gibson has been everything he hoped for, Hyde said, “And more.”
“Heard great things,” he said. “Had some friends with the Phillies last year that said extremely positive things about him, and they were dead on. He’s a total class act. Great leader in the clubhouse, one of the great leaders on our club. He’s a good starting pitcher, as well. It’s been fun to have him.
“I remember him when we faced him in Texas a couple years ago, he carved us up. You saw the stuff, he’s been an All-Star before. You take out September last year, he had a nice year, so nothing surprised me, performance-wise.”
Gibson is entering his 11th major league season, including the first seven with the Twins before he signed a three-year deal with the Rangers, who traded him to the Phillies in July 2021.
The Orioles gave Gibson a $10 million contract, the largest since Mike Elias was hired as executive vice president/general manager in November 2018. They made starting pitching a priority over the winter and also traded for Irvin.
The rest of the rotation hasn’t been confirmed, but Irvin is a lock. Rookie Grayson Rodriguez, the No. 1 pitching prospect, isn't confirmed but certainly had the inside track when he arrived, with nothing else to prove in the minors. He would have debuted in 2022 if not for a Grade 2 lat strain in June, but he's had a bad inning in each of his last three appearances this spring.
Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer remain the favorites to complete the set, and the Orioles have thinned the herd of competitors to eight with less than a week remaining until Opening Day.
Tyler Wells had a strong first half last year before he was derailed by a pair of injuries. He’s allowed 10 runs and 16 hits over 10 2/3 innings in four exhibition games, but he’s walked only two batters and struck out 14.
Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins also remain in the mix. Voth is out of options and expected to work in a long-relief role.
Left-hander John Means started the last two openers for the Orioles, but he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and will begin the season on the injured list, with a targeted return in July. He was scratched from the 2020 assignment, which went to veteran lefty Tommy Milone.
Milone completed a streak of four different Opening Day starters in four years, following Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner. Cashner replaced injured right-hander Alex Cobb.
“Didn’t we have some bad luck my first couple years?” Hyde asked with a grin.
Chris Tillman made consecutive starts from 2014-16.
The Orioles are beginning their season in Boston for the third time in four years. Adjustments made to the schedule in 2022 due to the lockout moved them to Tropicana Field to play the Rays. The 2020 season was delayed until July 24 because of the pandemic.
The Gibson era officially begins on March 30.
“A lot of experience, a lot of leadership, a guy that’s been there and has seen all this stuff that most of the people in this locker room aren’t that experienced, young guys especially,” said second baseman Adam Frazier. “I think he’s going to bring that leadership to be able to calm some guys down and show them the way. He’s pretty even-keel. A lot of these young arms can lean on him for what to expect or maybe how to go about their day and prepare and stuff like that.
“I think he’s going to be great. He’s done it for a long time now and that’s what he was brought in for. And he’s really looked good on the mound this spring, too. He was an All-Star two years ago, so you’ve got that kind of potential.”
Gibson left Hyde’s office, texted his wife and called family members who didn’t know which game to attend in Boston. Major League Baseball requested that teams hold off announcing their starters until today, so Gibson let the news trickle out only to the people closest to him.
“Had some family that was trying to make some plans, so hopefully nobody gets too mad,” he said, “but I had to give them a heads-up."
* Anthony Santander is starting at first base tonight against the Yankees' split squad, and Ramón Urías returns to the lineup at second base after being scratched last night with a bruised right thumb.
Adam Frazier is in right field. Adley Rutschman is catching again.
For the Orioles
Cedric Mullins CF
Adley Rutschman C
Ryan Mountcastle DH
Anthony Santander 1B
Gunnar Henderson 3B
Austin Hays LF
Ramón Urías 2B
Adam Frazier RF
Jorge Mateo SS
Kyle Gibson RHP
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