What if Kevin Gausman starts the season in the bullpen?

It is the most interesting and perhaps among the most important questions surrounding the Orioles - how will they reduce six starters to five to begin the 2015 season?

It appeared we may have gotten a clue on Thursday when Kevin Gausman pitched in relief and manager Buck Showalter said he may be shortened up in upcoming spring training outings.

Does that mean Gausman will start the year in the bullpen?

gausman-gray-specs-sidebar.jpgWell, less than 24 hours after talking about Gausman pitching in shorter stints, Showalter announced that the right-hander will start on Tuesday against Tampa Bay and pitch five innings.

Don’t try to guess with the skipper. Now this may also be as much about not pitching a starter against the Rays that they will see in that season-opening series.

If Gausman did start the season in a bullpen role, will some fans storm the Warehouse in protest? Hey, at least it would mean he is not sent to Triple-A yet again.

First, let’s look at this in the long term: Having more pitchers ready to pitch in the big leagues than roster spots is a good thing. Last year the Orioles used 20 pitchers and we should not have tunnel vision on only which pitchers make the opening day roster.

Second, having such depth could lead to trades to help the team in other areas, add prospects and/or open roster spots for other pitchers.

Third, the Orioles have two starters (Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris) and four relievers (Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, Ryan Webb and Wesley Wright) that can be free agents after the season, so, again, pitching depth is important. Now and in the future. At all times.

But some fans will say it is unfair if Gausman has to accept a bullpen role to start the season. Well, sports is about winning, not working to be fair to every player.

Another factor could be that the Orioles see Gausman as the starter that could best succeed in a bullpen role. If someone has to move, don’t you want it to be someone that can impact games?

In 15 career regular-season relief appearances, Gausman is 3-2 with an ERA of 3.52. While he has averaged 7.0 strikeouts per every nine innings as a starter, that number is 11.3 when he has pitched in relief. The velocity is likely to play up a tick or two in shorter outings.

In the playoffs last year Gausman pitched eight innings out of the bullpen allowed four hits and one run with two walks, seven strikeouts and a 0.75 WHIP. He was pretty good.

While Gausman has made 15 career relief appearances (18 counting the playoffs), the trio of Ubaldo Jimenez, Norris and Miguel Gonzalez have made a combined 13.

Gausman could be a right-handed version of Andrew Miller in relief, although can anyone truly be as dominant as Miller was last year? Gausman could come close perhaps.

As an aside, if Gausman goes to the bullpen that further crowds that part of the team. It is a bullpen with several pitchers already out of options with a list that includes Brad Brach, Zach Britton, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Webb and Wright. Plus the club may be looking to keep one or both of the Rule 5 picks.

What was I saying about pitching depth?

For now Jimenez is pitching well and the Orioles would like to keep it that way. Despite his critics, there is no way that Jimenez pitching well is a bad thing for the Orioles.

If he does pitch out of the bullpen, Gausman’s day to return to being an O’s starter is going to come and it may be very soon. This will likely be a temporary assignment. He’s too good not to find his way back into the rotation for good sometime very soon.

But one issue would be how to get Gausman back to being a starting pitcher. He would need to build up innings and pitch count to do that and that might mean a couple of weeks in the minors to make a few starts to build back up.

So far, the six starters for five spots issue has not resolved itself with an injury or a trade or through some other means. Norris has not pitched well, but he’s not going to lose his spot over a few shaky spring outings. Wasn’t he the starter that won 15 games and was dominant against the Tigers in the playoffs in 2014?

The Orioles have to figure out a way to keep as much pitching talent in the organization as possible and work around pitchers that cannot be optioned to the minors. They have to maintain as much pitching depth as possible for the long season and beyond.

For now that might mean Gausman to the bullpen. It doesn’t seem fair and may not be popular with some fans, but it might be the best move for now for a team with six starters and five rotation spots.

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