Can the Orioles really commit to Wei-Yin Chen long-term?

Left-handed starting pitchers do not grow on trees, especially ones that can be counted on for 30 or more mostly consistent starts per season. For the past four seasons, that’s exactly what Wei-Yin Chen has been for the Baltimore Orioles — a capable, fairly durable left-handed starter. Chen is not going to wow anyone, as his arsenal does not feature a blazing fastball or a devastating out pitch, but he will give you close to 200 innings per season. The Taiwanese native, who just turned 30, will be entering free agency for the first time this offseason. With very little left to look forward to over the final 31 games of the 2015 Orioles’ season, it’s time to start thinking about the lengthy list of players who will be up for a new contract.

Chen should be very near the top of the Orioles’ priority list. He’s been the only real dependable arm in the starting rotation this year, but there are some difficult questions the front office must answer before being willing to commit to Chen on a long-term contract. Left-handed starters do not come cheap, especially with a fairly weak free-agent class behind Johnny Cueto and David Price. Below those two bonafide aces, there is a group of pitchers best classified as a second or third starter at this point in their career — Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, Yovani Gallardo, and Scott Kazmir. Chen falls into that group.

Prior to joining the Orioles, Chen pitched five seasons in Japan. As a member of the Chunichi Dragons, Chen logged 650.2 innings. Combined with the 676.0 innings he has thrown for the Orioles, there is quite a bit of tread on the tires of the left-hander with a slight 195-pound frame. It is going to be difficult to predict how Chen fares into his thirties, and pitchers from the Japanese league do have a history of falling off a cliff rather quickly.

All of the Japanese innings Chen threw should already weigh heavily on the Orioles’ mind, but there are several other troubling things to consider with Chen. In his career, Chen has tailed off dramatically in the second half. In his rookie season in 2012, Chen faded to an 0-4 record with a 5.05 ERA in September. A year later when the Orioles faded down the stretch, he made 11 starts in August and September and posted a 5.55 ERA. Last season, as everything broke right for the Orioles’ rotation, Chen did not tail off, but the rest of the AL East did go belly-up.

So far since the 2015 All-Star break, Chen has made nine starts at pitched to a 4.62 ERA. In two of Wei-Yin Chen’s four seasons, his second half ERA has been nearly two runs worse than before the break.

[table caption=”Wei-Yin Chen: First Half vs. Second Half”]
Year,First Half ERA,Second Half ERA,Difference
2012,3.93,4.12,0.19
2013,2.82,4.90,2.08
2014,4.15,2.76,-1.39
2015,2.78,4.62,1.84
[/table]

Chen has been the best pitcher on one of the worst starting staffs in the league this year, and because of that, desire to keep him in Baltimore will be high. Whether that is the best idea remains to be seen.

Chen is represented by Scott Boras. If you expect Boras to play by Baltimore’s “no contracts over four years for players over 30” rule, think again. Chen is going to get paid, and handsomely. Probably over five years, and at a price that would suggest he is a number-two starter (he’s not). That’s just the way the starting pitching market has been shaped. Teams like the Orioles get left out of that market because they are unable to overspend on what could turn into a poor contract.

Here’s another troubling statistic. In his career, Chen has allowed a 5.15 ERA in the seventh inning and beyond. Furthermore, he’s only made it to that point in 53 of his 112 career starts. There is a very significant jump in batting average and slugging percentage once he goes beyond 50 pitches. Combined with his yearly second half fade, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the durability of Wei-Yin Chen.

The Orioles will find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Chen and his contract. Coming off a disappointing season, the team will need to show its commitment to fielding a winning ballclub, especially after letting Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis walk last year.

To have any chance of contending in the near future, the staff needs Chen, but he is more of a number two on a staff full of number threes. No one knows what the team will get out of Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey. Chen is a seemingly dependable option, but there is already real reason to be concerned about his durability. How will those concerns look when he is 33 or 34?

With Ubaldo Jimenez looking like a sunk cost at this point, the Orioles may not be head over heels about the prospect of tying up more money long-term for a pitcher into his mid-thirties. In the end, it will probably be best for the Orioles to make Chen a good offer to at least come out looking good to their fans and other potential free agents but be outbid by a team from a larger market.

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