SARASOTA, Fla. -- The only time the Orioles saw new addition Wade LeBlanc last season, the now recently-signed lefty trotted in from the T-Mobile Park bullpen with two outs in the first inning. A starter for most of his 11-year career, LeBlanc was serving as the Mariners’ bulk innings pitcher
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The only time the Orioles saw new addition Wade LeBlanc last season, the now recently-signed lefty trotted in from the T-Mobile Park bullpen with two outs in the first inning. A starter for most of his 11-year career, LeBlanc was serving as the Mariners’ bulk innings pitcher behind an opener that day, as became customary in Seattle last summer. Though he was ostensibly part of the Mariners' rotation, 18 of LeBlanc’s 26 appearances technically came in relief, 13 in the third inning or earlier. Similar circumstances were true for Tommy Milone's 17 relief outings with Seattle.
• Milone and LeBlanc: Two pitchers, same path
Both are with the Orioles now, in camp as non-roster invitees. The club views them as starters, and both called winning rotation jobs their priority this spring. But their experience in this more modern role adds a new layer of intrigue for their chances at cracking a 26-man roster spot, whether that comes at the end of camp or at some point this summer. The Orioles used what they labeled “openers” seven times last season, but they didn’t sport the personnel to truly employ the strategy or find consistent success with it.
Might that change this year? Possibly, but it’s early.
“It’s really what your pitching staff looks like and how it’s constructed,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Last year we had a tough time because we didn’t have a long guy to go after the opener. What happened with us was -- we’d use multiple bullpen arms in an opener start, which really handcuffed us for the next couple games.”
For an example, consider the Orioles’ 8-3 loss in Oakland last June 19. Baltimore started swingman Jimmy Yacabonis as an ostensible opener, but it was really more of a piggyback situation given the lack of length options behind him. Yacabonis pitched two scoreless innings, but Josh Rogers and Shawn Amstrong allowed seven combined runs over the next four, and the game slipped away. Hyde was forced to use Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro in mop-up duty, and the rest of the road trip became a struggle to find fresh arms.
The O’s went 1-6 on that trip, and 4-3 when using a reliever to start games in 2019. Half of those wins came when the bulk pitcher followed with at least five innings. That’s where LeBlanc and Milone could factor in, should the Orioles go that route. LeBlanc went at least five innings in 10 of 13 bulk appearances last year; Milone in 10 of 17.
“I still consider that almost being a starter,” Milone said. “I still knew the date I was going to pitch. It just wasn’t going to be to start the game. Sometimes it was in the first inning, so that wasn’t much of a change, because they still allowed me to get ample time to warm up.”
Said LeBlanc: “It wasn’t difficult because of the fact that I’ve been a long reliever before. It was one of those things where you’re either starting the game or relieving it. Whether it’s in the first inning or the eighth is irrelevant. It didn’t feel foreign to me, which is a good thing. It wasn’t difficult to make that adjustment so we tried to make the best out of it.”
One of the best examples for LeBlanc came in that June 20 game against the Orioles, when he threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings behind Tayler Scott -- a former Oriole himself -- to secure an eventual 5-2 Mariners win. Hyde and Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias referenced the outing in their introductory meeting with LeBlanc earlier this week, gauging his feelings about being part of the opener process as a whole.
Whether he and/or Milone are part of the equation or not, the Orioles remain likely to look for creative pitching solutions again this summer given all the uncertainty in their rotation and depth ranks.
“We’re going to keep our options open with everything, and it’s something we’ll consider,” Hyde said. “But in an ideal world, we have five starters and roll them out.”
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.