After much speculation, (and downplaying by Baltimore GM Andy MacPhail), Ken Rosenthal is reporting that the Orioles have agreed to terms with starting pitcher Justin Duchscherer on a 1-year, $700K deal ($1.1 million after he is added to the 25-man roster) that can escalate to $4.5 million with incentives.  Duchscherer would fill the last spot on the Orioles 40-man roster, putting a bit more skepticism on the Vlad Guerrero hype.  Not only are the Orioles now more than several million over their payroll budget for the 2011 season, but any addition to the major league roster would force a current player to be designated for assignment.  In the meantime however, Duchscherer is a classic MacPhail addition, for better or worse: low risk, high reward.  Orioles fans will hope he works out better than other recent gambles, but when healthy, Duchscherer can hold his own on the mound. 

Personally I haven’t seen the need to add a player like Vlad Guerrero to the Orioles’ lineup.  Not that he wouldn’t help win a game here or there, but he just doesn’t fit into the way the team is constructed and the young players who need at-bats.  However, this is not an issue with Justin Duchscherer.  On a team that is hoping that youngsters Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, and (perhaps) Zach Britton not only continue to produce but improve on last season’s effort, a veteran like Duchscherer would be a great asset to have at the back of the rotation.  His presence would allow the Orioles to carry just three of their young guns into next season, with two capable replacements at Norfolk should any of them get injured- and as we know, they often do.

The issues with Duchscherer have never been his production when he is on the mound; it has been his ability to stay healthy.  Should he last into June or July, it should be enough time for Britton to be ready to make his major league debut or for Tillman to live up to his potential when he was acquired from the Mariners in the Erik Bedard deal.  In fact, having Duchscherer in the rotation may actually help keep them from having to make the tough decision they faced last season in keeping Millwood in the rotation despite his poor production.  As a veteran, the team couldn’t push him aside to make room for the young starters they wanted to give opportunities to.  If Duchscherer’s health is an issue, the team will be more ready for it than they were last year, and perhaps even eager to give Britton or Tillman another major league shot.

That said, there are only so many ways to sugar coat the signing of an injury-prone pitcher.  Justin Duchscherer made just 5 starts last season after going down for the year and going through hip surgery.  He missed all of 2009 with shoulder and back issues, along with a bout with clinical depression.  This is not a pitcher you can rely on for the season, which is why he was available on January 30.  Given his history he may not make it out of April before going down, but when he is available he should be ready for the AL East.

After breaking into the majors primarily as a reliever, he has had just one full season as a starter, 2008.  In that season however, he pitched 141.2 innings, accumulating a 2.54 ERA and an astounding 1.00 WHIP.  I will leave it to Ross Gore to break his stats down on a more advanced level, but let’s be clear- if he is healthy, he is a solid addition to the starting rotation whether he is in the AL West or AL East.

For $700K it is hard to dislike this move, as every other available starting pitcher not named Cliff Lee who was a free agent was either a significant injury risk or had truly terrible stretches as a player.  This is not Garrett Atkins, Adam Eaton, or Alfredo Simon acquisitions, players that the Orioles were hoping will return to form after a bad stretch.  If the Orioles can keep Duchscherer on the mound there is no track record for failure.  But that is a big “if.”  $700K is worth the opportunity to take that chance.

For $4.5 million, should Duchscherer reach all of his incentives- incentives that are dependent on him staying healthy most of the season- this would be a great deal for Baltimore.  I would count on something in between, where Duchscherer needs time adjusting to the AL East or gets injured part of the way through the season, but gives the team a solid arm until their young pitchers are ready for the show.  Justin Duchscherer won’t drastically change this team, but he could have a profound effect on this team’s chances of .500 if he pitches to his ability for most of the season.  Even if not, he provides quality depth for a pitching staff that is otherwise relying on Jeremy Guthrie and a squad of promising but unproven arms.