Still searching for a starter

There are 23 more days before Orioles pitchers and catchers officially report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, though the number of early arrivals seems to grow every year.

Twenty-three more days and we still don’t know who’s replacing Wei-Yin Chen in the rotation.

If the season started today, the Orioles would make a fortune on coffee and hot chocolate sales. Also, I’d have to project Vance Worley as the fifth starter based only on my God-given right to guess along with everybody else.

Tyler Wilson back gray.jpgWorley has the most experience, giving him an edge over the likes of T.J. McFarland, Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright and Chris Lee. It’s possible that the Orioles simply turn them loose in a spring battle for the job, knowing of course that Worley is out of minor league options.

Executive vice president Dan Duquette indicated last week that a trade could be consummated while the Orioles are in Sarasota.

“We’re going to keep looking for pitching,” Duquette said. “I’m not sure where we’re going to find it. There’s some still available on the free agent market and there might be a trade or two in spring training we could make.”

The rotation appears to be set in four spots with Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman. Tillman is the obvious choice to repeat as opening day starter despite his struggles in 2015. There’s no clear-cut choice as the No. 2, but I’d assume Jimenez would get the call if the Orioles don’t make an impact trade or signing.

“We need seven or eight starting pitchers,” manager Buck Showalter said recently, a nod to the importance of having depth in the system.

Showalter also knows that Tillman and Gonzalez must have bounceback seasons for the Orioles to remain competitive, and he expects it to happen.

“Why not? We know it’s there,” he said.

“There’s some people that you could go sign or trade for that you’re not 100 percent sure if they can do it in the American League East. It’s a little different cat. Different ballparks. It’s the only place in the big leagues that has two AstroTurf parks in it.

“I understand all the different things that go into pitching here. We’ve got two or three guys who have been successful in this division before, so that’s up to us to get them back on that task. Sure, we’re looking at other people’s players in case something comes along, but at what price?”

There’s the rub. Other teams want young, controllable pitching in return for their arms, and the free agent market is flawed, with the Orioles reluctant to part with their first-round pick for Yovani Gallardo or give Doug Fister $22 million over two years.

Mat Latos remains a possibility on a one-year deal, but you can’t possibly sell him as an upgrade over Chen, or the rotation as being improved on paper. He’s the bounceback guy you sign for depth, the guy who, unlike Cliff Lee, has made it clear that he wants to pitch in 2016. The Orioles don’t get that sense from Lee, which is why Duquette said last week that he isn’t paying much attention to the former Cy Young Award winner.

Here’s the list of remaining free-agent starters, courtesy of MLBTradeRumors.com:

Bronson Arroyo (39)
Chad Billingsley (31)
Mark Buehrle (37)
Doug Fister (32)
Yovani Gallardo (30)
Jeremy Guthrie (37)
Aaron Harang (38)
Josh Johnson (32)
Mat Latos (28)
Cliff Lee (37)
Tim Lincecum (32)
Kyle Lohse (37)
Cory Luebke (31)
Justin Masterson (31)
Mike Minor (28)
Alfredo Simon (35)
Eric Stults (36)
Randy Wolf (39)
Jerome Williams (34)

I’d endorse Buehrle if I knew he was putting off retirement for one more year. If nothing else, the pace of games would increase significantly.

I understand the Orioles’ desire to keep their draft picks and stock up on pitchers, the preference being college arms who are closer to the majors, but Gallardo has made 30 or more starts in seven consecutive years. He’s 102-75 with a 3.66 ERA in nine major league seasons. That counts as a track record that no draft pick can deliver.

The debate rages on, with plenty of folks wanting the extra picks and others wanting a proven veteran. Pick a side.

One red flag with Gallardo is the increase in his WHIP from 1.295 in 192 1/3 innings in 2014 to 1.416 in 184 1/3 innings last season. There’s also his desire to land a four- or five-year deal. But pitching doesn’t come cheaply, which is why the Orioles so desperately want to draft and develop their own.

They currently hold six of the first 91 picks. How many will be impactful on the major league club? How many will stay healthy long enough to get a shot?

I’ll close with a grim reminder of the 1999 draft, when the Orioles owned seven of the first 50 picks - compensation coming from the free-agent losses of Eric Davis, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro. Just a little something to raise your blood pressure on another cold morning:

No. 13 overall: RHP Mike Paradis, Clemson

No. 18 overall: LHP Richard Stahl, Newton (Ga.) High School

No. 21 overall: OF Larry Bigbie, Ball State

No. 23 overall: OF Keith Reed, Providence

No. 34 overall: LHP Josh Cenate, Jefferson (W.Va.) High School

No. 44 overall: LHP Scott Rice, Royal (Calif.) High School

No. 50 overall: SS Brian Roberts, South Carolina

The top 12 picks were outfielder Josh Hamilton (Devil Rays), right-hander Josh Beckett (Marlins), catcher Eric Munson (Tigers), shortstop Corey Myers (Diamondbacks), outfielder B.J. Garbe (Twins), left-hander Josh Girdley (Expos), right-hander Kyle Snyder (Royals), right-hander Bobby Bradley (Pirates), left-hander Barry Zito (Athletics), right-hander Ben Sheets (Brewers), catcher Ryan Christianson (Mariners) and right-hander Brett Myers (Phillies). The four picks in between Paradis and Stahl were left-hander Ty Howington (Reds), right-hander Jason Stumm (White Sox), right-hander Jason Jennings (Rockies) and outfielder Rick Asadoorian (Red Sox).

Lots of misses in that group.

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