Last night, Kevin Gausman returned to the Baltimore Orioles from Triple-A Norfolk for his first start since allowing seven earned runs in just 3.2 innings to the Minnesota Twins on July 7. Gausman was sent to the minors following that start under the guise of allowing him to continue to pitch on normal rest over the All-Star break.
I don’t buy it for a second.
The Orioles have still not figured out what their plan is for the 24-year-old right-hander. This is what Gausman said on Tuesday prior to making his start Wednesday night against the New York Yankees, “If I pitch one inning, I’m probably going to be optioned.”
For the first six batters of the game, it looked as if Gausman’s own words would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jacoby Ellsbury doubled to lead off the game. Then Brett Gardner singled him home. Gardner would come home to score on a Mark Teixeira homer to right two batters later. It didn’t stop there, as Brian McCann singled and Carlos Beltran walked before Gausman finally stopped the rising tide with strikeouts of Chase Headley and Didi Gregorious.
This is not the first time Gausman has struggled in the first inning this season or his career. He has surrendered 17 earned runs in the first inning over the 29 games he has started in his Major League career. Seven of those runs have come in the opening frame in just four 2015 starts, however.
Against the first six Yankees’ hitters yesterday — all veterans who will punish a mistake — Gausman’s fastball was elevated and in the middle of the plate. He did not appear comfortable using his split-finger or curveball. This is absolutely a function of the cloud of irregularity under which Gausman has been forced to operate this season. In spring training, he almost won a spot in the starting rotation. Then he was a reliever. Then he injured his shoulder because he was not really prepared to handle the rigors of pitching in relief. Then Bud Norris struggled and Gausman finally got a chance to start. That should have been the end of the yo-yoing the Orioles have subjected Gausman to this season, but for good measure, they sent him to the minor leagues and gave Norris a few more chances to prove he wasn’t a shell of the 15-game winner of last year. That didn’t work out so well.
Gausman’s potential is still obvious. His fastball can be dialed up to 98 without obvious strain. When it’s working, his 84 mph split-change is unhittable, but it is a pitch that he does not appear to have fully begun to grasp at this point of his career. The 2015 season should have served as an opportunity for Gausman to continue working to master that pitch, but instead, thanks to the countless ups-and-downs, his focus has been shifted back just to getting comfortable at the Major League level.
If the Baltimore Orioles want to have any hope of seeing Kevin Gausman turn into the ace the franchise so desperately needs, he must be left in the rotation for the rest of the season. End of discussion. ESPN hot take machine Buster Olney tweeted that the Orioles may be willing to be open to trading Gausman. That would be a mistake, although Gausman would certainly command a higher return than Scott Feldman, the pitcher the Orioles received in return for Jake Arrieta — you know, the guy with the second-best FIP over the last two years in the National League.
Kevin Gausman has been jerked around enough this season. The Orioles need him in their long-term plans, especially with the unclear futures of Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey continuing to cast dark clouds on the Orioles’ farm system. Gausman has settled down considerably in two of the three starts this year in which he allowed first inning runs. The Orioles have 69 games left on the schedule this year. Under normal rest, Gausman should stand to see 12-14 starts the rest of the year. While there may be some bumps in the road, he needs to be given every opportunity to make each of those starts.
The Orioles started 2015 without a real plan for Kevin Gausman, and it has come back to bite them so far. That does not mean the season needs to turn into a lost year, but it does mean the time is now to stop jerking Gausman around. The Orioles need a concrete plan for Kevin Gausman, and they need it quickly.