O’s lack ace, but rotation is strong

Red Sox veteran Jonny Gomes drilled a 2-0 fastball to center for a hard out. But after facing Orioles phenom Kevin Gausman for a second time this spring, Gomes wasn’t any less impressed.

“A young guy like that who throws 98 and can throw his off-speed stuff for strikes … forget about it,” Gomes said.

Well, Jonny, scouts say that while Gausman’s changeup is nasty, his slider is a work in progress …

“He doesn’t need it to be good,” Gomes interrupted. “If you’ve got three plus-plus pitches, now you’re Verlander. You should be OK with a little less than Verlander.”

Gausman, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, isn’t Verlander, at least not yet. But he could pitch in Baltimore’s rotation this season, as could righty Dylan Bundy, the fourth overall pick in ’11.

About a week ago, the Orioles were discussing free-agent right-hander Kyle Lohse, according to major league sources. They’re continuing to scout Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello for a possible trade. But the best guess is that they will refrain from upgrading their rotation in the final days of spring training, just as they refrained the entire offseason.

Such a move is not necessary, in the current view of club officials.

The Orioles have 10 potential starters in camp. By September, the pitchers who open the season at Triple-A and Double-A — including Gausman and Bundy — might be better than the ones who are in the rotation on Opening Day.

The addition of Lohse, 34, only would add to the Orioles’ depth, and give them more of a top-of-the-rotation presence. But the price likely would be tens of millions on a multi-year contract, not to mention the No. 23 pick and accompanying pool money in the draft.

The Orioles could justify the loss of a pick — they also hold the No. 37 choice, a new, competitive-balance selection. They could justify parting with the necessary talent — say, a reliever and outfielder Nolan Reimold — for Porcello, if the Tigers are indeed willing to move him. The Orioles are just not inclined to make such a move, in part because their own talent is so intriguing.

Neither lefty Wei-Yin Chen nor righty Jason Hammel is an ace, and none of the other Orioles’ starters is, either. Club officials, though, are operating under the belief that one or more of their younger pitchers might “pop” this season.

Could be righty Jake Arrieta. Could be lefty Zach Britton. Could even be lefty Brian Matusz, who allowed one run in five innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday, yet seems likely to open the season in the bullpen.

Oh, and don’t forget about Gausman, 22, and Bundy, 20, both of whom are likely to open the season at Double A.

Manager Buck Showalter and his coaches joked repeatedly about taking Bundy north last spring, even though the youngster was less than a year removed from Owasso (Okla.) H.S. The staff, as it turned out, was actually quite serious — the Orioles spaced Bundy’s innings, and he made two relief appearances in September during the team’s wild-card run.

Now Gausman is inspiring the same kind of talk. He was at it again Tuesday, following Matusz by striking out three in two scoreless innings. The only Red Sox hitter to reach base against him was Will Middlebrooks, who ripped a ground-rule double.

According to Showalter, pitching coach Rick Adair mused at one point, “What if we saved his innings by putting him in the bullpen in the first month of the season, then sent him down?”

“Dan’s right up there,” Showalter recalled saying, referring to general manager Dan Duquette. “Go run that by him.”

Gausman, in the opinion of Gomes and others, actually is ahead of Bundy. That’s not a big surprise, considering that Gausman was drafted out of LSU and Bundy out of high school — and, that at 6-foot-4, Gausman is three inches taller. Still, when the two pitched back-to-back against the Red Sox on March 9 — first Bundy, then Gausman — Gomes said the difference was “night and day.”

Gomes allowed that it was only spring training, and that Bundy was perhaps at less than his best (Bundy started and allowed one unearned run in two innings, while Gausman pitched three scoreless). But in Gomes’ view, Gausman clearly had superior stuff.

Showalter isn’t about to compare the two, but he was raving again about Gausman on Tuesday, noting that his times to the plate from the stretch were good, and that he continued attacking the strike zone even when the Red Sox hit balls hard off him.

“He doesn’t get fearful of the barrel of the bat,” Showalter said. “A lot of guys do when they don’t have a lot of experience. But this guy pitched in front of 7,000-10,000 people a night at LSU. This isn’t new, the pressure part of it.”

Translation: Gausman won’t scare in the majors.

As it stands, the Orioles likely will cycle through starters the way they did last season, when Chen was their only pitcher to make more than 20 starts. The rotation comes with built-in flexibility; righty Chris Tillman is the only starter who is out of minor-league options.

The Orioles may regret their lack of dominant starters if they again reach the postseason. On the other hand, maybe one of the kids will develop into such a pitcher. Maybe Duquette can use his depth to acquire the best available starter at the deadline. Or maybe the GM will go down another path entirely and grab a hitter such as Twins first baseman Justin Morneau.

Gausman isn’t Verlander. Bundy isn’t Ben Sheets. But it’s telling that the Orioles seem lukewarm about signing Lohse or trading for Porcello. Those pitchers come at a price. And the Orioles’ own pitchers might prove just as good, if not better.