After an offseason that saw Alex Cobb traded, the Orioles go into spring training with their starting rotation full of question marks behind ace John Means. In addition, following an abbreviated 2020 season that saw pitchers throw under 60 innings, manager Brandon Hyde and pitching coach Chris Holt have their work cut out for them over 162 game schedule.
This offseason, Mike Elias approached this issue by signing veteran Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, and Wade LeBlanc to join rookie starters Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and Bruce Zimmermann who made their debuts in 2020.
On top of it, he drafted Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells in the rule 5 draft and picked up Ashton Goudeau as a waiver pick up. Add in Jorge Lopez who made six starts last year, and Thomas Eshelman who made four, and you have 13 realistic candidates for the rotation.
In theory prospects, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alex Wells are in camp and could compete, but they are most likely ticketed for AAA Norfolk to start 2021. 36-year old “rookie” Cesar Valdez will be stretched out as well, but his one-pitch dead fish repertoire is probably better for relief, even if it’s multiple inning relief.
So who has the inside track? Well, what’s clear is the Orioles are going to need a lot of starters through this year and there is talk of potentially going to a six-man rotation.
After Means, Akin and Kremer most likely would need to pitch themselves out of their spots in the rotation after pitching pretty well in 2020.
So let’s start with:
1. John Means – LHP
2. Dean Kremer – RHP
3. Keegan Akin – LHP
Zimmermann got a few appearances at the end of the year (one good and one bad) but it’s unclear whether the Orioles think he’s ready.
It is pretty clear the Orioles would love for Hernandez and Harvey to pitch well and earn spots even though that means they would need to DFA players since the 40-man roster is currently full. Hernandez, who is trying to remake himself as a wiley righthander, reportedly was pitching well in Atlanta’s spring training last year when COVID shut things down and Hernandez opted out for the season. His last success in the MLB was 2017. Harvey hasn’t had any sustained success at the major league level since 2018 with Cincinnati and is coming off a 2020 where he was absolutely atrocious. Harvey has lost almost 200 RPM off his fastball and curveball, but is trying to use the technology to remake himself and choose the Orioles because of the opportunity and this usage of tech.
The two rule five picks were starters in the minors, but both would need to make huge jumps with Wells only have 32.2 IP above High-A and Sceroler never pitching above High-A. If the Orioles really like their arms and potential they could potentially make it as long relievers since the team is going to need pitchers who can provide length in the pen. It seems like a long shot that either one sticks, but they will get the opportunity.
LeBlanc made the Orioles last year but only had one good start in five before a season ending elbow injury occurred. He seems like a break glass in case of emergency starter, but his chances improves if Hernandez and Harvey struggle. Lopez reportedly worked on improving his changeup, but he’s had a lot of opportunities to start in the major leagues with limited success and the Orioles may want to see if he provide value in a multi-inning reliever role.
Goudeau has never really had success past AA but did make his debut last year with Kansas City who thought so much of him they DFA’d him after the season.
Knowing they may need a lot of starters this year and the fact they probably want to give Baumann, Lowther and Wells AAA experience before calling them up, the Orioles may try to keep as many of these guys as possible so pitchers with options like Zimmermann could be sent down just so they have another guy who is ready or nearly ready.
Obviously spring training performance as well as how their pitches show on trackmaster will be a determining factor, here’s how I see the rotation filling out.
4. Hernandez: The Orioles really would like him to work out to add that veteran presence in the locker room so if he’s decent, I see him in the rotation to start the season.
5. Leblanc: Seems weird that a guy who was hit around last year would be back in the rotation, but if the Orioles can get 60-100 IP out of him he could be a bridge to the prospects in the second half of the season.
6. Zimmermann: The fact that he has a option make him a candidate to go back to Norfolk but I’m betting Zimmermann ends up getting 70-100 major league innings this year.
7. Harvey: He was so bad that it’s hard to imagine he’ll suddenly refind it, but he’s a veteran who knows how to pitch so if he finds something that works and has a good spring, he could clearly end up in rotation. He also may be looked at in a multi-inning reliever role.
8. Eshelman: A pure pitcher with very limited stuff. Showed he was ok in a long relief or swingman role, but will probably start 2021 in AAA since he’s not on the 40-man.
9. Sceroler: Really tough to make that jump from A-ball, and even if he does he may be looked at more for the pen.
10. Lopez: I really think this will be the year he’s converted to relief.
11. Tyler Wells: See Sceroler, but at least he has a little AA experience.
12. Valdez: Was a starter in the Mexican League but it’s hard to imagine this one trick pony will work 2-3 times through a lineup.
13. Goudeau: Probably will get DFA’d for Hernandez, make it through waivers and end up pitching in AAA.
14: Mickey Jannis: Bonus guy. Knuckleball pitcher who has never had success over AA but he can probably give some innings so he’s a dark, dark horse. Most likely heading to AAA or AA.