Should Orioles Remove Miguel Gonzalez From the Rotation?

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Miguel Gonzalez (Kevin Allen/PressBox
Miguel Gonzalez (Kenya Allen/PressBox

by Paul Folkemer/Pressbox

The Orioles’ 5-4 rubber game loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Aug. 9 brought plenty of frustrating moments for O’s fans, as the Birds were held to four runs in 11 innings.

Manager Buck Showalter’s bullpen use was questionable, as the Angels won the game during the 11th against unreliable righty Chaz Roe and lefty Brian Matusz. The Birds’ best reliever, lefty Zach Britton, never made an appearance.

But perhaps the event of greatest concern was right-hander Miguel Gonzalez’s continued struggles on the mound. The Orioles’ starter was knocked out in the fifth after throwing 102 pitches in 4.2 innings, giving up four runs on seven hits. It was the latest in a string of rough outings for Gonzalez.

The simplest explanation may be that Gonzalez isn’t 100 percent healthy. His struggles coincide with his return from the disabled list due to a strained right groin in June. During his 12 starts before the injury, Gonzalez was his usual effective self, posting a 3.33 ERA and hurling seven outings of six innings or more.

But after coming off the DL June 25, Gonzalez has a 6.22 ERA during nine starts, working six or more innings just twice. It stands to reason Gonzalez might be feeling slight effects of the groin injury, leading to his decreased effectiveness.

Whatever the reason, Gonzalez hasn’t fooled many batters since his return, allowing 12 hits per nine innings during that span, an increase over his 7.2 mark prior to his DL stint, and well above his career average of 8.5.

Gonzalez has allowed a .358 batting average on balls in play since coming back from the DL, in contrast to .236 beforehand. That high BABIP can’t simply be chalked up to bad luck, because hitters are squaring up the ball more solidly than ever against Gonzalez. Of balls put in play against him in 2015, 25.8 percent have been line drives, the highest rate of his career.

Gonzalez’s track record of success with the Orioles — a career 39-29 record and 3.63 ERA since 2012 — will likely afford him more time to work out his troubles. But at the moment, he appears to be the weakest link of an O’s rotation that has struggled to a 4.56 ERA since the All-Star break.

If the O’s were to have Gonzalez shift roles, he could slot in nicely as a long reliever. That’s the role in which he first broke into the majors in 2012, and he has made at least one relief appearance every season except 2015. Pitching out of the bullpen in low-pressure situations could allow Gonzalez to hone his command and work on missing bats more often.

The problem is, who would replace Gonzalez in the rotation? The Orioles’ pitching depth has become significantly thinner during the past two weeks. They released struggling veteran Bud Norris Aug. 8, and they dealt one of their top pitching prospects — righty Zach Davies — to the Milwaukee Brewers in the Gerardo Parra trade July 31.

Righty Tyler Wilson — coming off a 7.2-inning, two-run outing in Oakland Aug. 3 — would figure to get the next crack at a rotation spot, but was scratched from his scheduled start for Triple-A Norfolk Aug. 9 with a sore oblique muscle. It’s not clear how long Wilson will be sidelined. Right-hander Mike Wright is also injured, as he went on the 15-day DL Aug. 1 with a left calf strain.

Norfolk has no solutions, either. The Tides are currently cobbling together a rotation that features more organizational players than prospects, including lefty Chris Jones and righties Eddie Gamboa and Terry Doyle. None is ticketed for a major league promotion anytime soon.

The O’s could seek a starting pitcher on the trade market, but now that the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline has passed, there aren’t many bona fide pitchers available. Perhaps they could pursue a reunion with veteran righty Scott Feldman, who pitched for the Orioles in 2013 and now might be expendable amidst the Houston Astros’ rebuilt rotation. But does Feldman, or a pitcher of his ilk, represent a clear upgrade over Gonzalez?

For now, it appears the O’s have little choice but to stick with Gonzalez for a while longer. The Orioles’ pitching depth, which was considered to be a strength at the start of the season, hasn’t materialized as the Birds had hoped.

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