After struggling in his first stretch in the majors last year, Kevin Gausman began the 2014 season back in Triple-A, but now it appears as though the No. 4 overall pick of the 2012 amateur draft will get another shot. The Orioles will recall the 23-year-old righty to start against the Tigers on Wednesday afternoon, and while Baltimore hasn't said whether this is simply a spot start or a longer-term move, it's clear that he figures in the team's plans this year.
Drafted out of Louisiana State University in 2012, Gausman accumulated just 61 minor league innings — 15 at two levels of A-ball in 2012 and 46 1/3 at Double-A Bowie in 2013 — before being summoned to the majors last May 23. He was pummeled for a 7.66 ERA and 2.6 homers per nine in 24 1/3 innings across five starts before being sent to Triple-A Norfolk, but he found more success out of the bullpen in two big league stints over the remainder of the season; in that capacity, he put up a 3.52 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 23 innings while allowing just one homer.
Because he totaled just 47 2/3 major league innings overall and fewer than 45 days of service time before September, Gausman retained his rookie status, meaning that he could still be considered a prospect. Baseball Prospectus, which had ranked him at No. 13 among their Top 101 Prospects in 2013, pushed him to No. 10 in 2014, and he inched upward on the lists of Baseball America (26th to 20th) and ESPN (26th to 23rd) as well. He's still considered to be a top-of-the-rotation talent, though he's not at that level yet.
So far, he's made six starts at Norfolk, putting up a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings with a 26/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In an attempt to keep his innings count low so that he can help the big club later this year, he's been on a very short leash in those outings, averaging 72 pitches and topping out at 77 in his most recent outing on Saturday. That was his first appearance in two weeks due to a bout of pneumonia; the Orioles had planned to extend him to 90 pitches before he went on the disabled list with what they originally believed was an intercostal strain before realizing he was sick. In and around his illness, he's pieced together 14 1/3 scoreless innings with a 15/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Despite dealing with injuries to Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters thus far, the Orioles are currently in first place in the AL East with a 20-16 record. While they've become contenders over the past two seasons and change thanks in part to the effectiveness of manager Buck Showalter shuttling pitchers in and out of the rotation to accommodate injuries and take advantage of the organization's depth, they have yet to show a clear need for Gausman this season. The team has used just five starters this year, and while none has blown away opponents, none has pitched horrifically either. Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman and Bud Norris all have ERAs between 3.95 and 4.00, while Ubaldo Jimenez (4.73) and Miguel Gonzalez (4.78) have been about three-quarters of a run higher. All but Chen have FIPs between 4.59 and 4.72 due to high home run rates and middling strikeout rates, and all but Tillman have ERAs under 4.00 within the small sample of May performances. None of them has delivered a quality start more than 43 percent of the time this year, with Jimenez (14 percent, or once in seven turns) and Bud Norris (28 percent) the least frequent on that front.
The lone southpaw of the quintet, Chen has the lowest FIP (3.15) and home run rate (0.7 per nine) as well as the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.6) of the bunch, but it appears as though Showalter would prefer he didn't face the righty-heavy Tigers on Wednesday. As the Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly pointed out, the Tigers have the AL's best batting average (.293) and second-best OPS (.809) against left-handers so far, while the Royals, whom Chen would face if he's merely being pushed back a day, have the league's second-lowest OPS against lefties (.624). While Chen has been hit harder by lefties than righties this year (albeit in a sample of 46 PA against same-siders), his career splits in the majors are fairly typical; lefties have hit for a .718 OPS against him, righties for a .754 OPS.
For what it's worth, Gausman's lone quality start from last year came against the Tigers; on June 2, he limited them to one run and five hits over six innings while striking out four, with Prince Fielder's solo homer the only damage. Given what's likely to be a limited pitch count of around 90 (possibly less given that he'll be on three days' rest), he's unlikely to duel opposite number Justin Verlander into the late innings, but if he makes a solid enough showing, he'll give the Orioles cause to consider keeping him up. If he does stick around, the odd man out in the rotation could either be Tillman, who is dealing with a mild groin problem, or Gonzalez, who has spent a bit of time in the bullpen in each of his previous two seasons and whose turn would next come up on Friday. It's also possible that the team is keeping a more serious injury under wraps, with a corresponding DL move to follow, or that they plan to return Gausman to the minors to stretch him out a bit further before bringing him up for good later. Either way, expect the Orioles to be be mindful of Gausman's workload. Between college and the minors, he totaled 123 2/3 innings in 2012, while between the minors and majors, he threw just 94 innings last year. Thus it would be a surprise if he went far beyond 130 innings total this year, or didn't take another trip to the bullpen at some point. Of course, none of it will matter if he isn't more effective than he was last year, but his ceiling is high enough that his return bears watching.