A 'learning experience' for O’s young arms

May 26th, 2021

As a rebuilding club with well-publicized, long-term goals, the Orioles were always going to prioritize development over contention this season. They did so knowing some prospects would struggle in the short-term, others would thrive, and some would inevitably spend spurts doing both. Such is part of the development process at the big league level, where growing pains are to be expected.

But how many lumps are too many to take? At what point do they hinder development, and where is the ideal spot to draw that line?

Those questions were at the heart of the Orioles’ 7-4 loss to the Twins on Tuesday night at Target Field, where they dropped their eighth straight game, and 15th in 17 tries, behind another short start from Dean Kremer.

Allowing five runs across four inefficient innings, Kremer fell short of completing five innings for the sixth time in nine starts, while his ERA ballooned to 6.87. It did so on a night Kremer struggled mightily with command, throwing 51 of his 94 pitches (54 percent) for strikes and two wild pitches, both of which resulted in runs during Minnesota’s four-run second inning.

“I let things snowball pretty quickly,” Kremer said. “[My confidence] has been a little up and down. Some innings are good. Some innings are not as good. I’m still trying to be on attack and to do my best to bulldoze through everything.”

All told, it was the latest in a string of disappointing outings from the Orioles’ rotation, which owns a collective 6.80 ERA (even with John Means!) during the club’s May nosedive. Kremer is 0-3 with a 5.87 ERA this month, and 0-6 with a 7.97 ERA in his past 10 starts dating back to 2020. The Orioles optioned Kremer to Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday, and they plan to replace him with in the rotation.

“We felt it was important for Dean’s development to go down, continue to work on the quality of his pitches,” manager Brandon Hyde said Wednesday. “For me, Dean is a Major League starter. He has four Major League pitches. Now it's about being comfortable executing them.”

After Tuesday's game, Hyde said: “I think he’s frustrated. You see frustration out on the mound. This is all a learning experience for these guys -- Kremer, Akin, [Ryan] Mountcastle [who is day-to-day after being struck on the left hand by a José Berríos fastball in the sixth inning]. For all these guys that don’t have much time up here, these are learning moments, teaching moments. That’s why they are here right now.”

That's why, up to this point, the Orioles have largely let their young starters take their lumps, sticking with Kremer, Jorge López and -- to a less consistent extent -- Bruce Zimmermann, despite their collective 6.15 ERA. Before they sent Kremer down, it was fair to ask how much longer they would keep that alignment static, given the severity of their current skid, their commitment to managing innings and a variety of other factors. One of those factors: looming internal competition.

More than 1,000 miles east of Minnesota on Tuesday night, right-handed pitching prospect Kyle Bradish was making his first start at Triple-A Norfolk, having earned an early season promotion. Another right-handed pitching prospect, Mike Baumann, had his rehab assignment transferred to Double-A Bowie, with the expectation he will soon join Bradish, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells -- all among the club’s top 20 prospects, per MLB Pipeline -- in the Tides’ rotation. Lowther and Wells are both being hit hard at Triple-A, and it could be months before Baumann and/or Bradish are deemed ready for the big leagues. But the movement was notable on a night Kremer’s continuing struggles took center stage.

Until then, the O’s options are limited. But they do have options, notably: Akin moonlighting as a little-used long reliever and swingman Thomas Eshelman at Norfolk. Akin earned Hyde’s praise postgame Tuesday after allowing two runs in three relief innings behind Kremer. It was the second straight outing Akin essentially piggybacked Kremer -- in his other notable appearance this season, he followed López in similar fashion. Akin will make his first start of the season Sunday in Chicago; he went 1-2 with a 4.56 ERA in eight games (six starts) down the stretch in 2020.

Should Lowther or Wells (or even Bradish) turn things around quickly at Norfolk, they’d be in line for MLB innings, too. It’s the type of problem that, as teams like to say, tends to work itself out. The only requirement is that some players separate themselves with strong performances.  

For the Orioles’ current crop of young pitchers, that isn’t happening yet.  

“Now it’s about making adjustments, adapting to the league, understanding what you have to do,” Hyde said. “It’s not an easy game to play at this level. It’s about making adjustments going forward.”