For the Baltimore Orioles, one big question surrounds pitching prospect Kevin Gausman. Is he going to be a front-line starter, or is he going to be a future set-up man or closer?
In 2014, Baltimore needs to make a commitment toward figuring out that answer. In the minor leagues, Gausman has been almost exclusively a starter, taking the mound in the first inning in 20 of his 21 appearances. But in 20 MLB appearances with Baltimore in 2013, Gausman made just five starts and came out of the bullpen 15 times. If you believe in the numbers, statistics would suggest the Orioles would be wise to develop Gausman as a reliever.
That might be a surprise, given how Gausman cruised through the minor leagues. Starting with the organization in 2012, Gausman made his debut at Aberdeen (low-Class A) and quickly moved up to Frederick in the Class A Carolina League. It didn’t take long for everyone to notice the numbers Gausman put up at those levels, because they were insane. In five Class A starts, Gausman went 0-1 with a 3.60 ERA, but what couldn’t be ignored was the fact he walked only one batter and struck out 13. He gave up 11 hits in 15 innings, giving him a WHIP of 0.80. Opposing batters hit just .200 against him. Notably, however, Gausman averaged only three innings per start.
In 2013, Gausman started in Class AA at Bowie and also pitched for the Orioles’ Class AAA affiliate in Norfolk. He again showed amazing control and an ability to strikeout batters at will. In 82 innings at the two levels, he walked only 14 batters and fanned 82. He also worked his way up to more than five innings per start. The Orioles appeared to be very careful with his development, perhaps because of the injury to another standout pitching prospect in Dylan Bundy, who missed all of 2013 and had to go through Tommy John surgery that will cause him to miss at least the start of 2014, as well.
With Baltimore, Gausman made five starts in May and June and gave up 21 earned runs in 24.2 innings, an ERA of 7.66. He stayed in the bullpen after that, giving up nine runs in 23 innings for a 3.52 ERA. Going back to shorter appearances seemed to be a breath of fresh air for Gausman. His control wasn’t quite as great with the Orioles, though that’s to be expected for most young pitchers when they break into the Majors for the first time. He walked seven and struck out 29 in 23 innings, however, meaning the ability to strikeout hitters in bunches is still very much there.
Given the offseason departure via trade of former closer Jim Johnson, of the 101 saves the last two seasons for the Orioles, there is a giant hole to fill in the Baltimore bullpen. It’s unlikely that Gausman would be a closer for now, but given his apparent comfort with shorter appearances and his quality stuff, he could end up being a valuable set-up man by the end of the season if the Orioles can find someone who can consistently handle the closer’s role. Gausman can be groomed as a closer for later years. He has the stuff to be a high-quality reliever for the Orioles, as long as the team is smart enough to end the experiment of him being a starter.