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How will O's fill out their starting rotation?

@JoeTrezz
February 7, 2020

BALTIMORE -- Beginning Tuesday, the fight for big league jobs will commence across Florida and Arizona, with roster battles set to litter the Spring Training landscape. That will certainly be the case in Sarasota, Fla., where Orioles camp will feature competition in the bullpen, on the bench, behind the plate

BALTIMORE -- Beginning Tuesday, the fight for big league jobs will commence across Florida and Arizona, with roster battles set to litter the Spring Training landscape. That will certainly be the case in Sarasota, Fla., where Orioles camp will feature competition in the bullpen, on the bench, behind the plate and in the prospect ranks.

But the main questions for the Orioles concern the starting rotation, which currently has more uncertainty than the rest of the roster. There are more jobs to win in Baltimore’s rotation than perhaps any other in baseball, especially if the O’s don’t supplement their group with another veteran option. Even if they do, depth is a priority for a club that cycled through 18 different starters in 2019.

Let’s take a look at what the Orioles are working with in that regard by breaking down the state of their rotation at the dawn of camp.

The locks
LHP John Means, RHP Alex Cobb

At this point last spring, Means could probably accurately have been called the last man on the roster. Now, he will report to Sarasota a returning ace, fresh off his surprise All-Star season in 2019. The reigning American League Rookie of the Year Award runner-up is the favorite to get the ball on Opening Day, which was the assignment Cobb originally earned last year.

But a late-spring groin injury delayed the start to Cobb’s season, and other ailments defined it from there. All told, the veteran righty made just three starts before undergoing season-ending right hip surgery in June. He is expected to report to camp fully healthy ahead of the third year of the four-year, $57 million contract he signed before the 2018 season. The 32-year-old is 5-17 with a 5.36 ERA since the ink dried on that deal.

The mid-rotation candidates
RHP Asher Wojciechowski, RHP Kohl Stewart

Wojciechowski, 31, was a Minor League journeyman when he joined the O's in early July, then went 4-8 with a 4.92 ERA down the stretch. That earned him what general manager Mike Elias called “the right of first refusal” earlier this winter, and the fact that he’s out of options probably gives him a leg up over some other rotation candidates.

Stewart, 25, is a former first-round Draft pick with 17 big league appearances (six starts), all over the past two seasons with the Twins. The right-hander signed a split free-agent contract in December that’ll pay him $800,000 if he breaks camp with the club, though his two remaining options give the Orioles flexibility with regards to his roster spot.

In short, Wojciechowski and Stewart enter camp as the favorites to snag the rotation’s No. 3 and No. 4 spots, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Fifth-starter battle
Wade LeBlanc, Keegan Akin, Brandon Bailey, David Hess, Michael Rucker

Back at the Winter Meetings, Elias and manager Brandon Hyde both said they would like to have eight rotation candidates come Spring Training. Well, they technically have nine, given Hess and Rucker’s histories starting games. At this point, that probably positions them for swingman roles given the O's jumble of fifth-starter candidates, a group complete with a savvy veteran (LeBlanc), an upper-level prospect (Akin) and a Rule 5 Draft pick (Bailey).

The 35-year-old LeBlanc is in camp on a Minor League deal having made 114 career MLB starts. He went 15-12 with a 4.57 ERA over the past two seasons with the Mariners, mostly as a starter and bulk-innings pitcher. The Orioles grabbed Bailey (from the Astros) and Rucker (from the Cubs) in the Rule 5 Draft; both are 25-year-old righties who spent most of last season in Double-A. Baltimore may end up stashing both in the bullpen given their bevy of optionable relievers, especially if Akin impresses early in camp. The organization’s 2018 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Akin, 24, has the best chance of any prospect to break camp after going 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA last season at Triple-A Norfolk.

Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.