Kevin Gausman started 20 games for the Baltimore Orioles last season in his first full season at the Major League level. The results were good — 7-7 record, 3.57 ERA, 7.0 K/9, and only 3.0 BB/9. While he struggled with his command and pitch efficiency at times, Gausman appeared destined to become a fixture atop the Orioles’ rotation. He looked every bit the eventual ace for an aceless rotation the Orioles thought they were drafting when they took the 6’3″ right-hander with the fourth pick in the 2012 draft.
When the 2015 season rolled around, Gausman was not assured a spot in the Orioles’ rotation. In 2014, Gausman took the starting spot vacated by Ubaldo Jimenez due to injury and inconsistency. This Spring, the Orioles’ $50-million man came out rejuvenated, and flat-out won the final spot in the Orioles’ rotation. That decision has looked pretty good so far, as Jimenez has righted his ship and pitched to a 2.41 ERA with the lowest walk rate of his career.
What has not looked good, however, is the decision to place Gausman in the bullpen with Bud Norris in the rotation. Norris had an awful Spring Training, with an ERA over 9.00. That downward trend has continued into the regular season, as Norris has a 9.88 ERA in six starts.
For some reasons, I understand the desire to continue on with Norris in the starting rotation and Gausman in the bullpen. Norris offers little-to-no value to the Orioles as a relief pitcher. Gausman has pitched very well in relief throughout his career, so the move makes some sense when thinking about the current needs of the team. It does not make sense, however, when considering the development of one of the best pitching prospects in the franchise’s recent history.
Gausman went down last week with shoulder tendinitis. It is the first injury of his professional career, and while I am no doctor, I feel safe in saying that the injury was the result of a pitcher unaccustomed to pitching in relief overthrowing his fastball. There has been a noticeable increase in velocity for Gausman out of the bullpen. Gausman has the ability to dial it up to 100 mph out of the bullpen, but that extra effort combined with an erratic usage pattern likely set off his shoulder.
Gausman was used very inconsistently out of the bullpen, and had thrown only two innings in the past 17 days. Part of that may be due to the fact that his role on the team was up in the air leading up to the season. However, the Orioles never made it clear whether Gausman was a long reliever, a middle reliever, or a setup man. If you are going to waste a year of a top prospect’s starting rotation ability in the bullpen, you better get the most value possible. Instead, Gausman was often being called upon in the sixth or seventh inning to bail out another shaky performance from an Orioles’ starter — not exactly the high leverage situations he excelled in during last season’s playoffs.
An MRI of Gausman’s shoulder revealed no structural damage, and he will likely come off the disabled list when he is eligible on May 22. When that does happen, the Orioles will send Gausman to Triple-A to be stretched out as a starter, according to the Baltimore Sun.
“I think they’re just going to want me to be on a regular amount of days and knowing when I’m going to pitch,” Gausman said. “I think that will be good for me. Maybe that is why my arm is acting up. I don’t really know. I don’t have any answers yet.”
The need and desire to have Kevin Gausman on the Major League roster on Opening Day is understandable given his potential impact even as a reliever, but the fact remains that the Orioles used him improperly out of the bullpen and essentially wasted an entire month of a very talented young pitcher’s talents. Now, Gausman will go to Triple-A to reacclimate his arm to pitching in a starting role, wasting even more of his precious development time.
Kevin Gausman has already proven he is ready to take the ball every fifth day in a Major League rotation. Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris are both set to be free agents this winter. One or both of them will be gone, and Gausman will take his place in the rotation for the foreseeable future, but what cost will this up-and-down season have on his development? After last season, 2015 was to be Gausman’s chance to make a full season impact on the Orioles’ pitching staff, but now, after being yanked around, he must reset his season only a month old. If Kevin Gausman does not fulfill his potential for the Baltimore Orioles, the front office may look back on the 2015 season and cringe.