Zach Wilt: Arms will dictate Orioles' success in 2018

In 2018, the Orioles will go as far as their starting pitching will take them. I think I've been writing that same sentence for the last seven years. It's basic, but it's true. The O's offense is strong and should be even better this season. Last year, the team fell out of contention because its starting pitching struggled. The Birds' rotation ranked last in ERA (5.70), 27th in walks per nine innings (3.74) and gave up more hard contact (35 percent) than 26 of the 30 teams in baseball.

The projections are underselling the Orioles in the win column this season, at least in my opinion, but those computers sure do like their offense. The spreadsheets predict that the Orioles are going to hit more home runs that any team ever has in a single season, and they think they will still hit a few less than the Yankees. Adam Jones belted the first one in the 11th inning yesterday for the Orioles' first victory of the season.

With such power from the offense, the O's just need a staff that's in the middle of the pack to compete this season. Looking back, the 2014 American League East champion Orioles rotation ranked 12th in ERA (3.61), 20th in innings pitched (953.2) and 23rd in strikeouts per nine innings (6.91). Those guys still won 96 games because their offense was terrifying. The additions of Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner certainly should make the fan base feel a bit better about how this team compares to the one from 2017. Dylan Bundy's performance on opening day should also ease some of that tension.

While Jones' heroics will likely draw more attention - and rightfully so, it was incredible to see A.J. walk off as the hero on his 11th opening day in Baltimore with free agency looming - Bundy pitched a gem in his 2018 debut. Seven innings, five hits, no runs, one walk and seven strikeouts against a solid offense from Minnesota. The Twins scored 815 runs last season (fourth-most in the AL) and Bundy rolled through their lineup three times. Bundy never gave up back-to-back hits to the Twins, never surrendered an extra-base hit and, perhaps most remarkably, Minnesota's offense only ever reached second base against him.

Over 169 2/3 innings last season, Bundy was the Orioles' best starting pitcher. He posted the team's lowest ERA (4.24) and had the club's highest strikeout-to-walk percentage (14.5 percent). Surely, he is looking to build on those numbers this season and now can do so a little more comfortably with two proven veteran starters in the mix. On Saturday, Cashner gets the nod in his Orioles debut. Cashner pitched 166 2/3 innings with the Rangers last season and recorded a 3.40 ERA. He brings with him eight years of experience and a career 7.0 strikeout per nine. Down the road, Cobb will add support to this rotation. Cobb has six years of experience in the AL East and a 3.50 ERA over his 700 innings pitched.

Bundy had to be the guy last year if the Orioles were going to contend. This season, he can fit in behind two veterans and take a little weight off his shoulders. While he cruised on opening day, he won't be expected to be the No. 1 that the Orioles so desperately needed in order to compete in 2017. On top of that, the Orioles don't need a rotation that's top tier; they need to keep their opponents to under five runs and let the bats do the mashing.

Opening day was a low-scoring contest, but the Orioles bats are going to do damage this season. With an improved rotation, there's no reason to think that the O's can't compete in this division for the next 161 contests. They'll go as far as their starters will take them.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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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