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The Orioles’ rotation has been surprisingly awesome

But we must ask the eternal April question: is it sustainable?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It was not too long ago that the Orioles’ starting rotation was ranked near the bottom of MLB. USA Today, in fact, pegged the Orioles as having the 24th-best rotation in baseball in February:

The Orioles won 89 games and a wild-card berth in 2016 despite a starting rotation that ranked near the American League’s basement in most meaningful categories, then rectified the situation this offseason by bringing back all the exact same dudes. Chris Tillman had a nice season despite pedestrian rate stats and Kevin Gausman enjoyed a great second half, so the best hope is that 24-year-old Dylan Bundy is ready to make good on his long-held but injury-addled prospect pedigree and joins Tillman and Gausman at the front of a rotation fit to keep the O’s offense in games.

As summed up quite nicely above, most thought that the Orioles’ rotation would be the team’s Achilles heal into 2017, figuring they would struggle to keep even Baltimore’s great offense within striking distance.

But through the first three weeks of the season, the players on the Orioles’ staff have almost flipped the script. Interestingly enough, the offense has struggled a bit in the early going, but the pitching is what has opened Baltimore up to a 13-5 record through their first 19 games. No AL team has a better winning percentage than the O’s, who could be considered a surprise team even after claiming a Wild Card spot last year.

The Orioles’ rotation ranks 7th in the league in fWAR, 10th in ERA and 10th in FIP. Their xFIP, though, is a lot less encouraging, at 23rd, raising eyebrows as to whether this early performance is for real. Which raises the question: are the results that the Orioles are producing sustainable? Here’s a quick breakdown of the entire staff.

Dylan Bundy, the ace?

No pitcher on the Orioles’ staff has been better than the 24-year-old Bundy, whose top prospect pedigree finally appears to be coming to fruition.

Bundy’s ERA of 1.37 leads everyone that has made at least one start for the Orioles this season, and his 4.1 percent walk rate is more than half the league average. His stinginess with the free passes has kept Bundy’s FIP down at just 1.84, again leading the Orioles’ staff by a considerable margin. He has not allowed a homer yet, though, so his 3.50 xFIP is a bit high for now, and it’s hard to know where that will go over the course of the season as his home run numbers stabilize a bit.

Regardless of his home run numbers, through one month, Bundy looks to be the ace of the staff. However, can he stay healthy? If he can and is able to toss upwards of 180 innings, the Orioles should have no worries giving the ball to Bundy once every fifth day. As USA Today implied, Bundy was the biggest unknown coming into this season, and so far, he seems to be a stud.

Wade Miley and Kevin Gausman, the question marks

Trending in opposite directions, Miley and Gausman appear to be the biggest questions that remain throughout the Orioles’ season. Positive results from both of them would likely yield a postseason birth for Baltimore.

Let’s start with Miley. Now 30, he finds himself with his fourth team in his seven-year big league career. At one time, he was thought to be part of the Diamondbacks’ future, posting a 4.1 fWAR in 2012, but has posted a quartet of seasons no better than decent since that time.

To start 2017, though, Miley’s performance seems to be up one or two ticks. In his last start against the Reds in Cincinnati, Miley pitched eight fantastic innings, allowing just one run on two hits, striking out eleven and walking one.

That one start has inflated his overall numbers a bit, though, and it’s especially hard to look past a seven-walk performance against the Yankees on April 9. Control problems have popped up here and there for Miley in the past, but his 11 strikeout game ties a career high (done three times) and makes it the second time he’s almost reached the dozen plateau in an Orioles’ uniform. Maybe they’ve found something in him?

Gausman, on the other hand, trends in the opposite direction. He posted a 3.10 ERA with a 3.95 FIP in the second half last year, suggesting that a breakout for the former 1st round pick was possible. Overall, he posted a 3.0 fWAR, a career-high.

But through his first five outings this year, Gausman has seen his strikeout numbers dip, his walk numbers rise and his ERA be downright ugly. He’s allowed 20 earned runs over 24 innings pitched (7.50 ERA) thus far, and a 17-to-15 K:BB ratio doesn’t bode well for him going forward. Among qualified starters, Gausman has the second-highest ERA in baseball and the eighth-highest FIP.

In order for the Orioles’ rotation to take this supposed step forward, Gausman needs to find the 2016 second-half Kevin Gausman.

Ubaldo Jimenez, as advertised

Since joining the Orioles in 2014, Jimenez has been the same type of pitcher every season.

Over his first full season, his ERA had never been higher than 5.44 but never lower than 4.11. His FIP marks have been even closer. Jimenez provides mid-rotation value, especially pitching in a tough AL East division, but he is nowhere near the ace that he was with the Rockies many years ago. (Remember when he was a frontrunner in the NL Cy Young race with future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay? Ahh, good times.)

That doesn’t mean he won’t be valuable, though. He was worth 1.7 fWAR last year and 2.6 the year prior. His peripherals aren’t that bad, but they aren’t excellent either. Jimenez is on the wrong side of 30 now, but if he’s going to be the No. 4 with the Orioles, he shouldn’t be a huge problem.

So far this year, Jimenez has tossed 16 13 innings in three starts, allowing 10 runs (5.51 ERA) and posting a 9-to-7 K:BB ratio. He’s already allowed three homers, so his xFIP is a decent 4.87 mark, but if his ERA goes down the run or so that we expect it to, Jimenez will be the Jimenez that we have seen over the past few seasons.

Alec Asher or Jayson Aquino, the fifth starter

Asher, 25, and Aquino, 24, have each made one start in the fifth slot this season, but it is expected that Aquino will handle the duties the rest of the way.

Aquino comes with just 8 13 innings of big league experience, including his six inning 2017 debut, so there is not a lot to work with so far. Over his high-minors career, though, Aquino was never a big strikeout guy, but he generally kept his walk rate between 5-7 percent, which is pretty solid.

It isn’t fair to judge Aquino on one start, but let’s do it anyway. He definitely looked serviceable when facing the Red Sox, allowing just six hits and two runs over six innings. He walked three, seemingly out of the norm for him, and struck out just two. ZiPS thinks that he’ll post a 5.53 ERA and a 5.26 FIP over 106 innings the rest of the way.

If Asher is the one to take the spot from Aquino, here’s the skinny on him. Dinged for a PED suspension in 2016, the Phillies dealt Asher to the Orioles over the offseason, and he entered 2017 as their long-man.

In his one start, he pitched 6 13 against Toronto’s putrid offense (sounds weird to say that, huh?), striking out five and walking just one. Asher had the tale of two seasons between 2015 and 2016 with Philadelphia, looking much more comfortable in the latter. He’s a low-strikeout, low-walk type of guy who ZiPS projects to post a 4.57 ERA and a 4.78 FIP if he does slide into the rotation.

The Conclusion

It’s early. We’ve established that. But there are lots of positives from the Orioles so far. Let’s run them down here quickly:

  • Dylan Bundy looks like an ace
  • Wade Miley seems to be returning to form
  • Their fifth starters have been decent enough, as far as fifth starters go

But, in order to keep this going, here’s what they’re going to have to do:

  • Bundy will need to stay healthy
  • Kevin Gausman has to figure himself out
  • Miley keeps doing what he’s doing, or at least something close to that

So, the Orioles’ rotation has been solid so far. But certain things must go their way to turn this into sustainable success.

. . .

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score.You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.