The Orioles aren't sharing any hard innings limits with any of their young pitchers just yet, preferring instead for them to ramp up as normal with the focus of potentially winning big league jobs out of camp in Sarasota, Fla. But club officials are well aware of the innings quandary lurking out on the horizon, which is why they're considering a six-man rotation, piggybacking and an array of non-traditional pitching strategies to get them through 2021.
What that will look like remains unclear, and the O's are far from the only team tossing around these sorts of ideas after last year's shortened 60-game season. But priorities in this space will vary by team, and Baltimore is in a different position than some as a rebuilding club primarily focused on the health and development of several young pitchers.
Workloads will be monitored, and in some cases, restricted. Development will be prioritized, even at the Major League level. It'll be a unique challenge for first-year pitching coach Chris Holt, whose job will include overseeing what'll be a year-long juggling act with little historical precedent.
"My interest level is to make sure that we take care of pitcher's health and win as many games as we can, and whatever we have to do that is the priority," Holt said. "We're most concerned with managing workload, managing rest and recovery time, and doing the things that help guys stay on track and also sharpen their weapons between outings."
Certain pitchers will be handled differently than others. The calculus is most complicated for big league-ready prospects like Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, who are looking to build on exciting 2020 debuts but logged significantly fewer innings last season than ever before. It's a reality brought on not by injury or any developmental setback, but by the pandemic.
Kremer's innings per season
2016: 114 (NCAA + MiLB)
2018: 131 1/3
2019: 113 2/3
2020: 18 2/3
Akin's innings per season
2014: 88 1/3 (NCAA)
2015: 81 (NCAA)
2016: 135 (NCAA + MiLB)
2017: 116 1/3
2018: 137 2/3
2019: 112 1/2
2020: 25 2/3
Other prospects like Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells -- all of whom may debut in 2021 -- have even less work to build upon from last season. Many didn't throw a competitive pitch outside the O's alternate training site or instructional camp last year. It's unlikely they'll be let loose right away, if at all this year.
"The big picture on this is that it's important to manage workload on a micro level so we can sustain it across the macro level," Holt said. "When you look at all the innings totals, and the numbers and the things that are dealing with math, it can be a little bit noisy. The reality is, we have to be able to manage their work and their recovery and their build-up between outings, and then manage that workload over a longer period so that there is a steady, sustainable method to how they stay in rhythm and how they're able to basically get back to baseline recovery prior to next outing."
If this all sounds theoretical, that's because it is. Pitchers are individuals, with different bodies, needs and long-term forecasts. For what managing those differences might look like on a nightly basis, Holt provided a hypothetical example:
"If a starter has been throwing a string of four- or five-inning games," Holt said, "it's going to be really difficult to let them go eight innings and 35-45 pitches more on a given night and really spike that workload."
Hence all the depth options in Orioles camp: veteran starters Félix Hernández, Matt Harvey and Wade LeBlanc, Rule 5 Draft picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, swingman types Thomas Eshleman and Jorge López and potential multi-inning relievers Cesar Valdez, knuckleballer Mickey Jannis and others. Kremer and others have said they prepared as usual this offseason and expect to be built up normally this spring, while knowing the circumstances could force adjustments once the season begins.
"Every time I step out on the field, I'm trying to put the team in a position to win," Kremer said. "It doesn't matter if its 20 innings or 40 innings or 150 innings, my goal out there is the same as always."
Joining Trey Mancini among the early position player arrivals to Orioles camp were third baseman Rio Ruiz and outfielders DJ Stewart and Stevie Wilkerson, who both also participated in the club's minicamp at the complex in January. The club's first full-squad workout is Monday.
Those players were joined at camp Friday by Harvey, two days after the right-hander's Minor League deal became official. Harvey's first workout in orange and black was limited to a game of light catch, manager Brandon Hyde said. He said the 35 other expected pitchers have all arrived in O's camp.
Around the horn
Newly acquired prospect Jahmai Jones will play some outfield, but he is being viewed primarily as a second baseman, Hyde said. Yolmer Sanchez has the inside track at the position, Hyde said, with Freddy Galvis pegged as the everyday shortstop and Ruiz the leading candidate to start at third. Hyde said Ruiz will be given "every chance" to win the third-base job again, though competition could come from No. 26 prospect Rylan Bannon.
MiLB schedule announced
The official unveiling of the 2021 Minor League Baseball schedule this week brought welcomed certainty to the Orioles, who can now map out their placement and development goals for many of their top prospects. Here are the Opening Days for O's affiliates:
• Triple-A Norfolk: April 6 at Nashville
• Double-A Bowie: May 4 at Altoona
• High-A Aberdeen: May 4 at Wilmington
• Low-A Delmarva: May 4 vs. Salem