Watching Wei-Yin Chen keel over in pain after delivering a pitch in the 5th inning on Sunday against the Twins caused a lot of questions to crop up. Is it just a cramp? Could it be serious? Will he miss any starts? Will Pedro Strop have to pitch today? (Just kidding, he’s been a lot better lately.) Who will take his place if he has to miss time?
For about 24 hours, word was that it could just be a cramp but the Orioles didn’t get that lucky. Chen strained his oblique causing him to land on the 15-day disabled list. If he is ready to go in 15 days, he will be missed for two or three starts. However, oblique injuries are difficult for pitchers to recover from. Obviously every individual is different, but Chen could miss more than 15 days.
It is difficult to put into words just how devastating this injury is for the Orioles. Jason Hammel is the ace of this team; he got the ball on Opening Day as well as Game 1 of the ALDS last season. But Chen is the rock of the rotation. He is Mr. Consistent. While the O’s shuttled starting pitchers back and forth between Baltimore, AAA Norfolk, and the disabled list last season, Chen was always there. He won’t win any Cy Young awards, but he rarely gets roughed up and you can count on him for six solid innings. It is so important to have a guy like that pitch every five days. There is no doubt that the Orioles will miss him badly while he is out.
The question of who will replace Chen is complicated by the fact that the rotation is already being patched together. The Opening Day rotation consisted of Hammel, Chen, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Jake Arrieta. Chen is joining Gonzalez on the DL and Arrieta is pitching for the Norfolk Tides. Three fifths of the rotation needs replacing right now.
So far this season we’ve seen Zack Britton, Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson, and Freddy Garcia come up and make spot starts for the major league club. Garcia will definitely stick as through two starts he has been effectively unhittable outside a pair of bad innings. He brings veteran experience, the ability to eat innings, and has earned another couple of starts. That makes three starters in addition to Hammel and Tillman. Britton and Johnson could potentially be given another look. Both are looked at favorably by the organization but were hit hard in their starts this season. Either one could be given another chance.
I think that we will see Jair Jurrjens be brought up eventually to see what he can do in place of Chen. His minor league signing garnered a lot of attention this past offseason because of his recent success with the Atlanta Braves. In a quest to prove that his injured knee is back to 100%, Jurrjens has pitched to an ERA of 3.14 over 8 starts covering 51.2 innings. He has an impressive 36 strikeouts to 15 walks. Perhaps it is a stretch to believe that he can regain the form that made him an all-star in Atlanta. But he has at least shown in Norfolk that he is healthy and able to throw strikes consistently, which is more than he could do last season with the Braves. He has experience being a front-end starter and is pitching well right now. He also has a clause in his contract saying that he can opt out of his contract if he isn’t in the major leagues by June 15. Given the state of the O’s rotation and his contract, it seems that the time has come for him to show what to do.
All teams have to deal with injuries and ineffectiveness. The loss of Chen is particularly hard for the Orioles, but they need to overcome it. It is at times like these when the seemingly meaningless offseason roster moves made by GM Dan Duquette really make sense. When you look around the league, you see some really bad pitchers making spot starts. That illustrates the lack of depth in those organizations. Duquette and Buck Showalter work hard to make sure that the O’s have solid pitching depth, and it is now coming into play. The Orioles have a number of options for the rotation right now; all of which have either lots talent or major league experience. Head-scratching signings like Freddy Garcia and Jair Jurrgens this or Nate McLouth last year are smart moves because they are low-risk but can- and have- come in handy.
Right now, it is anybody’s guess who will come up and join the rotation to replace the fallen starters. I named a few options here, but the club could go in another direction. Whoever they may be, it is unlikely that they that replace Chen’s success and consistency. But any of them have the capability of pitching at the major league level and keeping the O’s afloat until Chen makes his return.