The 2015 season will go one of two ways for Baltimore Orioles top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman. Either he will spend the rest of the season in the starting rotation, or he will work out of the bullpen in middle relief. While Gausman’s ultimate future with the club is in the starting rotation, he is too valuable to the Orioles, who have been working with a six-man bullpen the past week, to send to the minors to continue working in that role. If Gausman, who will make the start on Thursday thanks to the weekend’s double header, impresses against a Texas Rangers ballclub that has bludgeoned Orioles’ pitching for eight home runs and 16 runs in two games, it is very difficult to justify leaving him out of the starting rotation for the remainder of the season.
Although the Orioles have just wrapped up an 18-10 month of June that saw them outscore opponents by a whopping 46 runs, this is not a team without lingering questions. The biggest of those questions surrounds the future of Bud Norris in the starting rotation. Norris has been the biggest offender in a middling starting rotation this year. After giving up four bombs to the Rangers on Monday, Norris has allowed 11 home runs in 11 starts. He has a 6.79 ERA on the year and a 2-7 record. His 6.3 K/9 is drastically below his career average of 8.2. Norris returned from an extended trip to the disabled list in May, and made five starts in the month of June. Don’t be fooled by the 3.81 ERA he has posted in those starts. That number artificially masks the five unearned runs he allowed to the Boston Red Sox on June 24. Yes, two runners reached base via the error in the Red Sox five-run sixth inning, but Norris is still partially responsible for allowing the inning to snowball out of control and did give up a two-run home run to David Ortiz to cap off the scoring.
Norris has been reduced to a one-pitch pitcher this season. His slider is no longer effective. Witness the two two-strike home runs he allowed to Mitch Moreland and Carlos Corporan in his most recent start that did nothing but spin across the fat part of the plate. On the season, opponents have seven extra base hits against his slider. When he misses with it, he misses badly and it gets hit hard. The Orioles have given Norris enough chances this season, especially when considering his 9.00-plus ERA in Spring Training and the fact that the team has no commitment to him beyond this season.
The time has now come for the Orioles to inject Kevin Gausman into the starting rotation. He proved in a spot start against the Toronto Blue Jays that being jerked between starting and coming out of the bullpen has not dulled his ace potential. The first two innings were a little rough as Gausman struggled to find a rhythm, but once he settled down, the Blue Jays could not touch his fastball or splitter. Gausman already proved last year, with a 7-7 record and 3.57 ERA in 20 starts that he is more than capable of pitching at the big league level. In his first start of the season, he mostly shut down the best lineup in baseball. He will have another chance to shut down a lineup that has already scored more runs in two games against the Orioles than the team allowed in its previous five games.
If the struggles of Bud Norris are not enough, the Orioles only need to look further down their farm system to Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, the organization’s top pitching prospects behind Gausman. Harvey has not thrown a pitch yet this season, and Bundy is now likely done for the year thanks to shoulder inflammation. Harvey had to be shut down last year due to arm trouble, and Bundy already went under the knife for Tommy John surgery. The Orioles do not have a good track record of developing young starters, but Gausman has had no setbacks. With Norris and Wei-Yin Chen hitting the free agent market this winter, the Orioles need to find out for sure what they have in Gausman because the future of Bundy and Harvey is extremely cloudy at this point. Furthermore, the injuries to these two make it very unlikely the Orioles will be able to work a deal for a rotation-changing type of pitcher.
There will be some ups and downs with Gausman, but if the Orioles are being honest with themselves, it is time to give him a chance to sink or swim. The Orioles have a very tenuous grasp on first place in the division standings, but unlike last year, every team is still a player (yes, even the Red Sox who have won three straight). If the front office must make a tough decision regarding Bud Norris’s place on the roster, then so be it. Norris has not given the team any reason to believe he can right the ship this year. Kevin Gausman, with his 98-mph fastball and nasty splitter has ace potential. Using him in any role other than starting pitcher the rest of the year would be a waste of that talent. Should he impress on Thursday, the Orioles will need to strongly consider going forward with him in that role. In a division that may be won on the season’s final weekend, 15 starts from Kevin Gausman rather than Bud Norris could be the deciding factor for the Baltimore Orioles.