The Orioles have deployed an all-right-handed rotation this season — a top-heavy one, at that — and MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reports that they’re interested in acquiring a left-handed arm to help balance it out. Among the names in which Baltimore has shown interest are San Diego’s Drew Pomeranz and Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano, according to Morosi.
Baltimore’s need for rotation help is clear. The O’s have a narrow lead in the American League East (one game ahead of Boston, two ahead of Toronto), but Chris Tillman is their lone starter with an ERA south of 4.00. In fact, Kevin Gausman (4.37) and Tyler Wilson (4.57 as a starter) are the only other two pitchers that have started a game for Baltimore this season and presently own an ERA under 5.00. Non-Tillman starters for the Orioles have posted a collective 5.53 ERA. The Orioles have an excellent bullpen, but their relievers’ 237 1/3 innings are currently the 10th-most in all of Major League Baseball, and eight of the nine teams whose bullpens have posted higher innings totals have sub-.500 records. Rarely can contending teams rely this heavily on their relief corps.
Pomeranz has been an oft-mentioned trade candidate over the past few weeks as it’s become more and more clear that the Padres will be sellers on the summer trade market, but Liriano’s name hasn’t been mentioned much to date. Of course, there are multiple reasons for that. Firstly, while the Bucs have underwhelmed this season, they’re still just three games under .500 and 4.5 games back from a Wild Card spot in the National League. It is in no way clear that they’ll entertain selling off pieces of their big league roster this summer, and Morosi adds that GM Neal Huntington recently told MLB.com that his focus remains on winning in 2016.
Secondly, Liriano simply isn’t performing well in 2016 and is owed another $20.25MM through the end of the 2017 season as of this writing ($7.25MM for the duration of ’16 and $13MM in ’17). Liriano was terrific for the Bucs from 2013-15, posting a 3.26 ERA with 543 strikeouts against 214 walks in 518 innings out of the rotation. However, his old control problems have resurfaced in 2016, as he’s averaged 5.6 walks per nine innings (including tonight’s start) en route to a 5.17 ERA. Liriano is still averaging better than a strikeout per inning, and his velocity is holding steady (92.3 mph average fastball), but in addition to his glut of free passes he’s been exceptionally homer-prone.
Pomeranz, meanwhile, is a more plausible trade candidate, but the Padres needn’t feel motivated to deal him. Unlike many summer trade candidates, Pomeranz is controlled for multiple years beyond the 2016 season; San Diego can keep him through at least 2018 by way of arbitration, and the fact that he’s only now in the midst of a breakout season at age 27 has suppressed his arbitration earnings to date. Pomeranz is earning $1.35MM as a first-time arbitration-eligible player, but he’s pitched like a top-tier starter for an otherwise dismal Padres staff. In a team-leading 81 innings this season, the former No. 5 overall draft pick has posted a 3.00 ERA with 10.7 K/9, 4.2 BB/9 and a 45.6 percent ground-ball rate.
Certainly, there’s reason to approach Pomeranz’s success with some degree of caution. The former top pick, like many before him, posted dreadful numbers at Coors Field for the first three seasons of his career before being flipped to the A’s. Pomeranz posted solid numbers in Oakland, but he did so as more of a swingman than a regular member of the Athletics’ rotation. He’s never topped 147 innings in a single season (combined between the Majors and minors), and he hasn’t even climbed that high since 2012. He also battled a shoulder injury last season and dealt with a biceps injury back in 2013. Pomeranz figures to surpass his 2015 innings total the next time he starts for San Diego, and how well his arm can hold up over the life of a full season’s worth of innings remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, he’s an intriguing asset whose stock is on the rise while playing for a last-place club with an aggressive general manager and front office in place, so the debate of whether he should be traded or retained figures to be one of the more interesting topics as the non-waiver trade deadline draws nearer. Pomeranz has already been connected to the O’s and Marlins this week alone, and other suitors figure to line up in the weeks to come.
The other piece of the equation in this scenario is whether the O’s have the necessary talent to acquire either of these arms (or another rotation upgrade). Entering the season, Baseball America and ESPN’s Keith Law pegged the Orioles as having the game’s fourth-worst farm system. That’s not to say that the O’s don’t have appealing players, but the lack of depth in their system will allow other teams ample opportunity to offer superior packages in trade talks.