Assessing the pitching battles this spring

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John Means photo by Craig Landefeld

This year will be another rebuilding year for the Orioles, but that means there are lots of opportunities for players to make the opening day roster. With few jobs locked up and 36 pitchers in camp, there are plenty of opportunities and plenty of candidates competing for them.

First, let’s take a look at the expected stats last year of the pitchers in competition.

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Starting Rotation

Locks
Alex Cobb
John Means

Both Cobb and Means are the only two members of the rotation that are locks for the rotation if they are healthy. Means is coming off a rookie All-Star season in which he used a plus changeup to baffle hitters an will look to solidify himself as part of the future with a solid 2020 season. Cobb is coming off a season in which injury cost him all but three starts. He’s full go this spring and will be looking to bounce back to his 2017 form.

Favorites
Asher Wojciechowski
Tommy Milone
Wade LeBlanc

Wojo made 16 starts for the Orioles last year and was pretty effective overall in the sense that he wasn’t absolutely destroyed like most other starters not named Means or Bundy last year. Mostly a fastball, curveball, slider pitcher, he can be effective when he stays out of the middle of the plate but he gets barreled too often (10.7%, bottom 6% of MLB). His fastball is more effective in the upper part of the zone while his slider is effective low away even though it has more break than depth.

Tommy Milone, who turns 33 on Feb 16th, is a soft tossing lefty who give the Orioles a veteran innings eater. He can pitch long relief or be a 5-inning type starter. He’s mostly a fastball, changeup guy though he does throw a slider and curve occasionally. 

Stuff
Fastball (45) –  (Below average) 87.1 MPH avg, 8% more vertical movement & 27% more horizontal movement than MLB average but expected batter numbers suggest he was a bit unlucky last year (.276 BA vs .298 xBA and .702 SLG vs .604 xSLG). 
When the fastball is good it’s typically in the upper part of the Zone, but when he misses in the middle in doesn’t end up well.

Change – (55) (Above average)  79.4 MPH avg, 3% more vertical movement & 14% more horizontal movement than MLB average, was a little lucky last year (.204 BA vs .237 xBA and .325 SLG vs .379 xSLG). Gets more swing and misses of a change than any other pitch and is a weapon against right handed hitters down and away.

Slider – (45) (below average) 79.1 MPG avg, -6% less vertical movement & -50 % less horizontal movement than MLB average. Uses left on left as a putaway pitch and can occasionally get off a good one, but it’s not consistent. He was a bit unlucky last year (.289 BA vs .263 xBA and .579 SLG vs .539 xSLG)

Curve – 45 (below average) 75.3 MPH, -12% less vertical movement & -57 % less horizontal movement than MLB average. When he locates it low he’s had some success, but can’t get away with mistake very often do to lack of sharp bit and movement. He was very lucky last year with the curveball (.222 BA vs .281 xBA and .556 SLG vs .562 xSLG)

LeBlanc is coming off a subpar 2019 but will get every opportunity to win a spot despite his underwhelming stuff.

He’s a soft tossing 35-year old lefty who was in the bottom 10% of the league in xBA and xSLG. Similiar to Means, his best pitch is a changeup and last year he went to a cutter over his sinker more times than not. The cutter got hit pretty hard, but so did his sinker so maybe they will scrap both and have him go to a pure four seamer which had a little bit of success last year when up in the zone, even though it has low spin rate.

Others in Competition
Keegan Akin
Brandon Bailey
Kohl Stewart
Chandler Shepherd

Akin is coming off a 2019 season that saw him put up a 4.73 ERA in 112.1 AAA innings last year. He’s the only rookie with a real shot, but they may want to see him go back to AAA and have a little more consistency before he gets major league innings.

Bailey is a Rule 5 pick who will get every opportunity to win a spot on the team in either the rotation or the pen. He probably has a better chance of sticking as a starter but his performance plus the performance of others will dictate that this spring.

Stewart will need to open some eyes but he has the advantage of being on the 40-man roster. He’s mostly a sinker-slider guy and may be better off in a reliever role. His slider is his only pitch that he can miss bats with (33.3%) and it will be interesting to see if the Orioles will have him ditch his sinker for a more traditional 4-seamer.

Shepherd made his major league debut with the Orioles last year after being claimed from the Red Sox but he struggled in his quick look last year. Gets most of his swing and misses with his fastball up and curveball low and out of the zone, but will really need to show well to win a spot.

Getting a preview
Dean Kremer
Zach Lowther
Alex Wells
Bruce Zimmerman

All four of these guys are heading to the minors to start the year although Zimmerman and Kremer have some AAA experience last year and could make their debut in 2020 at some point of they pitch well at Norfolk.

Extreme longshots
Tom Eshelman
David Hess
Michael Rucker

Eshelman got four starts last year out of his 10 major league appearances. He uses deception to allow his well below average stuff play at all, but his lack of movement and velocity will make it tough for his to have any success in the major leagues.

Hess was hit hard often (49.4% hard hit %) last year and is at a make or break year for him at the major league level. The Orioles may try a move to the bullpen to see if he can get a jump in stuff in shorter outings, but his inconsistent command has always been his main issue.

Rucker is a rule 5 selection as well, but may have a better chance to stick in a relief role. He’ll need a good spring to make the team.

Bullpen

Locks
Mychal Givens
Richard Bleier
Miguel Castro
Hunter Harvey

All four of these guys will be in the bullpen unless they are traded or injured. Givens is coming off a subpar year but still has plus stuff and is the best reliever when he’s on his game.

After a slow start, Bleier pitched better in the second half and put up a team best .287 xwOBA of any pitcher who pitched more than 20 innings for the Orioles. He dominated lefties once again.

The Orioles keep waiting for Castro’s plus stuff to play up and this could be that season. His changeup and slider were dominant pitches last year but his 97 MPH sinker was hit hard way too often. Castro rarely works in the upper portion of the strikezone and may need to work all four quadrants of the zone to max out his potential.

Harvey got his first taste of the major leagues but was shut down in early September. He’s supposedly healthy and will be a full go, and if so, expect his 99 MPH fastball, change and curve to see some closing time before the year is out if he can stay healthy.

Favorites
Bailey and Stewart if they don’t stick as starters
Shawn Armstrong
Tanner Scott
Paul Fry

Armstrong flashed solid stuff at times and can go multiple innings so he will probably have to pitch his way off the team this spring. Scott flashes dominate stuff at times but his lack of command and consistency has been his issue. He’ll get every opportunity to win a spot. Fry is probbaly pretty close to a lock but could pitch his way off the team if he struggles this spring and Scott pitches well. They could both make it this year since the team will probably carry 13 pitchers.

In Competition
Dillon Tate
Evan Phillips
Cole Sulser
Cody Carroll
Travis Lakins

Basically all the pitchers on the 40-man roster have a chance to win a spot with a good spring. Tate and Phillips will flash plus stuff at times but neither has found the consistency needed to stick in the majors. Sulser had some success last year but still managed to get DFA’d and picked up by the Orioles. He could be a sleeper. Lakins is another DFA claim and could claim a spot, but also could be on the bubble if the Orioles need a 40-man spot for Milone or Leblanc if he doesn’t pitch well. Carroll is returning after missing 2019 with back surgery. The Orioles may want to give him some AAA time but he will see major league time if he pitches well there.

Longshots
Eric Hanhold
Branden Kline
Brady Rogers
Hunter Cervenka
Ty Blach

Hanhold didn’t miss a lot of bats but actually flashed some good stuff at time with the Mets last year. As a non-roster player it will be hard for him to break through and is probably heading to AAA. Kline was hit hard in his major league time last year and was DFA’d this offseason. He’ll need to regain his standing at AAA this season. Rogers and Cervenka will get looks but probably heading to AAA and Blach may have a hard time even making a AAA roster without a good spring.

Getting a look
Christian Alvarado
Marcos Diplan

Alvarado and Diplan are heading to the minors to start the season but will get a chance to leave an impression this spring.




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Tony Pente
Tony has owned and operated Orioles Hangout since 1996 and is well known for his knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles organization from top to bottom. He's a frequent guest on Baltimore-area sports radio stations and can be heard regularly on the 105.7 FM The Fan. His knowledge and contacts within the Orioles minor league system and the major league baseball scouting industry is unparalleled in the Baltimore media and is known as an expert on the Orioles prospects.