It's that time of year again. when baseball fans start thinking about projected matchups, rosters and pitchers' duels for the postseason.
Whether your favorite team has locked up a playoff spot yet or is still competing to grab one, playoff baseball is surely on your mind.
The Baltimore Orioles sit just a game-and-a-half in back of the Tampa Bay Rays, who hold the second wild-card spot. With both teams meeting for a four-game set next week, it's safe to say the O's control their own destiny.
Should the Orioles fight their way into a second consecutive postseason berth, it will be interesting to see how Baltimore manager Buck Showalter handles different situations—namely, the starting rotation.
Of course, the Orioles would have to make it past the wild-card game in order to actually have to worry about their starting rotation. Let's assume they do just that and advance to the ALDS.
The first question is whether the Orioles should start their best pitcher for a wild-card game or go with one of their better pitchers and save their ace for the first game of the ALDS.
Unfortunately, it's not that black-and-white, as the O's rotation leading up to the wild-card game will likely determine who pitches. The two starting pitchers who start the final two games of the regular season likely won't be in the running to start a wild-card game.
It would be nearly impossible to project the rotation the rest of the way through the regular season, as Showalter has been doing a lot of mixing and matching during the later half of the season, much like he was doing last season. Part of that is due to the O's having had five off days in August, so Showalter was able to juggle his rotation easily last month than he will be able to this month, when the O's have just one day off.
Orioles ace Chris Tillman last pitched on Monday against the New York Yankees, and since he's stayed on schedule of pitching every fifth day all season, it's likely that he'll pitch next on Saturday against the Toronto Blue Jays.
After that, though, it gets a little tricky with an off day on Monday, Sept. 16. It will be up to Showalter as to whether to count that day towards Tillman's rest days and start Tillman a day earlier than every other pitcher in the rotation or to push the entire rotation back. It would surprise me if Showalter hasn't looked that far ahead regarding that exact scenario.
If Showalter pushes his entire rotation back, Tillman would then pitch on Friday, Sept. 20, at the Rays, and for the final time during the regular season against the Blue Jays at home on Wednesday, the 25th. That would then set up Tillman to start the wild card game, should the Orioles make it that far.
On the flip side, Showalter could want to get Tillman as many regular season starts as he can, considering he's the O's best starter right now and one game could make the difference between a playoff berth or not.
If that's the case, he could push everyone back a day and count the off day on Monday towards Tillman's rest, starting him a day earlier each time through the rotation with Tillman pitching on Sept. 19 at the Boston Red Sox, Sept. 24 against the Jays and on the final day of the regular season on Sept. 29 against the Red Sox at home.
Considering that the AL wild-card game will be played on Oct. 2, just three days after the O's regular season ends, Tillman wouldn't be able to pitch that game if Showalter bumps him up in the rotation after Monday.
But the O's have other capable pitchers in Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Feldman and Bud Norris who can make the start. Considering that the O's beat Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers while starting Joe Saunders in last year's wild-card game, it's not always about who's starting, but how the teams are playing at the time.
Since Tillman's start this past Monday, the rotation has had Gonzalez, Feldman, Chen and the recently announced change of Jason Hammel taking Norris' start on Friday due to elbow discomfort. When it comes to the Orioles, you can never be sure that the rotation will hold true, but if it does, I would bet that Tillman starts the wild-card game on exactly one week's rest should Showalter not move him up in the rotation after the off day on Monday.
If Tillman is bumped up and ends up pitching the final day of the regular season, then the wild-card starter could be anyone. Gonzalez could pitch it on a week's rest, and Gonzalez usually excels when given extra rest. Feldman could pitch the game on normal rest, as he's been fantastic over his last four starts, or Chen could pitch on four days rest.
In that scenario, one would imagine that should the Birds advance past the wild-card game, the rotation would fall into place in the ALDS. Tillman may be able to start Game 1, but would definitely start Game 2 at the latest, and everyone else would likely follow as scheduled.
My thinking is that Showalter will move up Tillman to make the extra start before season's end and worry about who pitches the wild-card game when the time comes. A lot of it will depend on who the O's would play in that game.
Were they to grab the second spot right now, they'd be playing the Rangers for the second year in a row, which would make me think that Gonzalez would start the game given that Feldman hasn't been good historically against his former club, even though he's arguably been the O's second-most reliable starting pitcher this season since his acquisition.
Should the O's play any team other than Texas, though, like Tampa Bay or Oakland, I would think Feldman gets the ball.
Come the ALDS, I believe Showalter will start Tillman to lead off the series, then start either Gonzalez or Feldman in Game 2, depending on who didn't start the wild-card game. After that, I see Chen pitching, followed by the wild-card game pitcher and Tillman in a possible Game 5 with Norris working out of the 'pen.
Right now, though, it's all about reaching the postseason. The O's have a lot of work to do to get there and every game counts.
If you disagree with my assessment of how a potential playoff rotation for the Birds would play out, leave me a comment and I'd be happy to debate the topic with you!