Things started out well enough for Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman in his highly anticipated major league debut Thursday in Toronto. Through three scoreless innings, the 22-year-old phenom struck out three, walked one and allowed two singles.
Then the wheels started to fall off. After back-to-back doubles to begin the bottom of the fourth, a bunt single and a walk, Gausman had allowed a run and was faced with a bases-loaded, no-out jam. He then fell behind 3-0 on the count to Emilio Bonifacio, but Gausman got Bonifacio to hit a sacrifice fly to center field (thanks to a generous strike-one call). He then retired the next two batters to escape the jam, but the Blue Jays weren't done. In the fifth, J.P. Arencibia hit a two-run home run on an inside fastball, giving the Jays a 4-3 lead. Gausman finished the inning, but his night was done after that.
His final pitching line went as follows: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 SO on 89 pitches, as the Blue Jays went on to win 12-6. So, yeah, it wasn't a great outing, but it's not hard to see why the Orioles promoted Gausman in the first place. Gausman, who was ranked 26th in Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospects list, has an outstanding repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball, an outstanding changeup (his best pitch) and a slider that he's been working to improve since entering Baltimore's farm system. He occasionally throws the slider at two different speeds, and when thrown harder it can resemble a cutter.
On Thursday, Gausman utilized all of his pitches, including a few fastballs that touched 98 and 99 mph and several impressive changeups. But he will need to demonstrate better command to keep hitters off balance. It's one thing to blow minor league hitters away by getting ahead and then throwing pitches that are clearly outside the strike zone. But in the majors, pinpoint accuracy will make filthy offerings that much more difficult to deal with. Still, it was Gausman's first start, and it's not uncommon for a pitcher with so little minor league experience to need to command his pitches better.
It's basically a given that Gausman will receive a second start (and more), and he definitely should. The Orioles could have gone in a few other directions instead of promoting him. They could have given Jair Jurrjens another start, recalled Zach Britton or Steve Johnson, or gone with Jake Arrieta or T.J. McFarland. Granted, those aren't necessarily very good options, but the O's didn't have to call up Gausman. But Orioles manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette wanted to give the youngster a shot, and you'd think they want to see how he performs as the team's fifth starter, at least for a handful of outings -- and preferably for the next few months.
Many Orioles fans expected to see Gausman in Baltimore at some point in 2013, but not in May. If not for the injuries to Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez, the O's probably wouldn't have made this decision so early. Chen is scheduled to begin rehabbing a strained right oblique muscle soon, but he's still at least a few weeks away from returning. And Gonzalez only just came back from a blister on his right thumb on Tuesday. But because of Arrieta's previous ineffectiveness, Freddy Garcia is currently in the rotation, and he has not been good. Garcia has a 4.84 ERA in 22.1 innings, and he's barely striking anyone out (3.22 K/9) and has already allowed six home runs. Since Gonzalez is back, there's no need to have Jurrjens in the rotation (he was recently optioned back to Triple-A Norfolk), and when Chen returns, he'll likely take Garcia's spot in the rotation.
As the Orioles demonstrated when they surprisingly promoted Manny Machado last August, they're not afraid to give their talented young players a chance if they can help the team win games. Showalter said as much on Wednesday. Machado solidified third base and helped the Orioles get to the postseason last year. And now, the O's are hoping Gausman can at least pitch decently for however many starts they decide to give him. They don't need him to dominate, but they do need him to perform better than the rest of their fringe starters. Overall, the Orioles' rotation, which has now used 11 different starting pitchers, has been underwhelming. Heading into Thursday, Baltimore ranked 12th in the American League in ERA (4.73), 14th in K/9 (6.11) and 11th in BB/9 (3.40).
But Gausman could help to change that. He was talented enough for the Orioles to select him fourth overall in last year's draft, and they believed he was advanced enough to only pitch in 15 combined innings in their low- and high-A affiliates before promoting him to the next level. Starting the year at Double-A Bowie in April, Gausman overwhelmed hitters in 46.1 innings, striking out 49 batters and walking just five. He won't replicate those fantastic numbers in the majors, but the O's are hoping he can at least add something to a rotation that could use a shot in the arm.