By Contributing Writer: Nick Stevens
News around Birdland has recently focused on the loss of RHP Vance Worley after the Nationals signed him to a minor league contract on January 28th. He provided a reliable long-relief option for the O’s and the occasional spot-start. Manager Buck Showalter can look no further than Norfolk for Worley’s potential replacement.
Photo: Baby Birdland
The time is now for Joe Gunkel. The 25 year old RHP was acquired in June of 2015 from Boston in exchange for OF Alejandro de Aza and cash considerations. De Aza has bounced around numerous teams since the trade while Gunkel has remained a productive pitching prospect for the Orioles.
Gunkel was added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster back in November to protect him from being lost in the Rule 5 draft. The 25-year-old, 2013 18th round draft pick must have a productive spring training if he wants to make his major league debut this season.
Let’s be honest, Joe Gunkel is not a flashy or exciting prospect, but that’s what I like about him. He is a pitch-to-contact pitcher who has well above-average command. Despite going 8-11 with a 4.08 ERA last season in 24 starts for AAA Norfolk, Gunkel finished the 2016 season with the 8th lowest WHIP in the International League at 1.23. He led the IL in lowest BB/inning ratio after giving up only 18 walks in 141.1 innings. In 430.1 innings pitched in his minor league career, Joe has walked just 75 batters and owns a 1.12 WHIP.
With an attacking pitching style comes a high number of hits allowed, but Gunkel’s value could come from his ability to dominate left-handed batters. Lefties hit .260 against Gunkel, while righties hit .294. His ERA dropped from 4.38 to 3.63 and his WHIP from 1.26 to 1.19 when facing left-handed hitters.
Getting ahead in the count has been critical for Gunkel’s success in the minor leagues. With Norfolk last season, Gunkel walked zero batters after getting ahead in the count.
After Tillman, Gausman, and Bundy, the Orioles rotation gets murky. Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez will most likely round out the rotation this season with Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson available to start when necessary. Neither Miley, Jimenez, Wright, or Wilson have proven they can be mainstays in the rotation, leaving the door open for Gunkel. New Orioles’ bullpen coach Alan Mills was Gunkel’s coach during his time in AA Bowie where Joe went 8-4 with a 2.59 ERA.
As Buck Showalter famously says, “I like our guys!” Sure, there are quality free agent pitchers remaining on the market but after putting Gunkel on the 40-man roster to keep him out of the Rule 5 draft, I believe the Orioles are set on giving him a fair shot. Expect Gunkel to begin the season in Norfolk, and with a solid showing, make his major league debut before the All-Star break.