Can Tyler Wilson Win a Spot in the Orioles’ Rotation?

If there is one player in Baltimore Orioles’ spring training camp who is doing just about all he can to make the roster for Opening Day, it is Tyler Wilson. The 26-year-old from the University of Virginia has turned in over nine crisp innings in the Grapefruit League to date, most recently shutting down the Toronto Blue Jays for 3.1 innings in Tuesday’s contest. As the remainder of the projected starting rotation continues to muddle through poor start after poor start, Wilson is making a legitimate case to be included as the number-five starter when the team heads north. Buck Showalter admitted as much.

“There’s some competition here that I don’t think people understand,” Showalter told the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli after yesterday’s 6-6 tie with the Jays.

That there is an open competition for the final spot in the rotation is mostly due to the fact that Miguel Gonzalez has been nothing short of horrid in two of his three starts this spring. Imagine that a pitcher enters a start with an ERA of 18.00. Pretty easy to lower that mark by getting a few outs. All you would have to do is allow fewer than two runs per inning. Unfortunately for Gonzalez, his ERA rose from 18.00 to 22.24 after giving up seven hits, three walks, and six earned runs in just 1.2 innings of work against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.

The Orioles faced a similar predicament last spring, when Bud Norris — arguably one of the best pitchers on the 2014 ALCS team — struggled to a 9.26 ERA in four Florida starts. Norris, who was eventually designated for assignment, wound up with a 7.06 ERA in 66.1 innings for the Orioles before he was mercifully cut loose. If the Orioles are to capitalize on their record-breaking offseason spending, they cannot afford a repeat of last year’s debacle with Gonzalez playing the tragic role of Norris.

Gonzalez has been a very dependable pitcher for the Orioles since they scooped him up out of the Mexican League. In four seasons, he is 39-33 with a 3.82 ERA. There have always been indications, however, that the diminutive right-hander has been getting by on smoke and mirrors. He has never recorded an FIP below 4.00 thanks to his dependence on fly-ball outs. Gonzalez has also allowed over a home run per nine innings in his career, and his walk rate is less than stellar. As he nears the age of 32, it appears the Orioles may have gotten as much mileage out of Gonzalez as possible.

A crafty right-hander like Gonzalez has to have everything working to get outs at the big-league level. Perhaps only his split-fingered fastball rates above-average. All of his other offerings are very hittable, especially when he is dealing with nagging injuries or mechanical issues, as has been the case so far this spring. Some pitchers are able to outpitch their FIP by a wide margin, and by all accounts, Gonzalez has done exactly that over the course of his career. Everything came crashing down last season, as season-long injuries (never severe enough to prompt a full shutdown) pushed his ERA all the way up to 4.91.

There are many similarities between Wilson and Gonzalez. Neither possesses an overwhelming fastball. But, whereas Gonzalez must rely heavily on getting his outs through the air, Wilson is able to induce ground-ball outs with great frequency. So far this spring, Wilson has compiled a 1.75 GO/AO ratio. Gonzalez has a 0.76 career GO/AO rate. That style of pitching does not play well long-term in the homer-happy AL East, but sabermetricians have been pointing to Gonzalez’s eventual demise for years.

If Wilson is going to build a legitimate case for himself, he must continue doing what he does best — throw strikes and induce weak contact on the ground. In 36.0 innings with the Orioles last year, he pitched to a 3.50 ERA and gave up only one home run. That he struck out only 3.25 per nine is a bit unsettling, but so long as Wilson is filling up the zone with strikes, he should be able to keep the ball in the park. Further development of his slider and changeup may help Wilson inch closer to his minor-league strikeout rate of 7.8 per nine.

How can Wilson win the job?

Simply put, Tyler Wilson must continue doing what he has done so far this spring; there’s really not much more he can do. Short of striking out two an inning, Wilson has already been putting his best foot forward so far in spring training. He should make three or four more appearances before the final roster is selected. If he continues pitching like this, it may be hard to leave him behind. As for Gonzalez, if he is able to right the ship over his next few outings, it may be difficult for the fiercely loyal Showalter to tab Wilson for the fifth slot in the rotation.

As it stands right now, Wilson would have to be considered the favorite to win the number-five spot in the Orioles’ starting rotation over Gonzalez and Vance Worley. Showalter offered glowing praise after his most recent performance, “He has a great presentation. He is confident. He’s not scared of the competition. There’s a lot to like about him. Sometimes he gets forgotten about, but not by us. He’s a very trustworthy pitcher because you know what you’re going to get.”

There really is a competition for the final spot in the Baltimore rotation, and with all of the uncertainty surrounding other pitchers like Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Yovani Gallardo, who all have their spots locked up, going with a safe but unspectacular pick like Wilson to round out the rotation could pay off for the Orioles. With a great offense, all this team needs out of its number five is six solid innings of strike-throwing. Tyler Wilson continues to show that he may be exactly the right pitcher to fill that role.

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