O's spring plans? Solve the pitching puzzle

February 17th, 2023

SARASOTA, Fla. -- DL Hall made two proclamations Friday morning: One regarding his health and another pertaining to his situation with the Orioles this spring.

On Thursday, general manager Mike Elias shared that Hall had been dealing with right lower lumbar discomfort in recent weeks. Not an issue anymore, said the 24-year-old left-hander, who has already returned to throwing.

“I’m good to go now,” Hall said.

Then, MLB Pipeline’s No. 97 overall prospect was asked if he still views himself as a starter after his month-long stint in Baltimore’s bullpen at the end of the 2022 season. Hall didn’t hesitate with his response.

“I’m going to be a starter,” Hall said.

The Orioles will decide whether that’s the case long term, but they’re in agreement right now. Hall is among the dozen pitchers competing for rotation spots this spring. Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin are locks, though, leaving 10 pitchers battling for three slots.

Assume that Grayson Rodriguez (baseball’s No. 7 overall prospect) wins a job -- he’s a heavy favorite to do so -- and that leaves nine competing for two spots. So quite a few tough decisions will need to be made after the next six weeks.

Some of those candidates appear to be clear fallback options in case of injuries. But Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells and Austin Voth all pitched well enough last season to have strong rotation cases for this year. The math suggests two of them may need to either move to the bullpen or get sent down to the Minors.

And that doesn’t even account for John Means (who should return from Tommy John surgery rehab in July or August) or Hall, one of the most high-upside arms in the organization.

“If one of our better starting pitchers doesn’t make the Opening Day rotation of five and would be a clear help out of the bullpen, do we want to shortchange that guy’s starting career, or risk jeopardizing it, by compressing them into a bullpen role just to help the early-season 2023 team when they could be continuing their development as a starting pitcher?” Elias asked.

Not a simple question. Not one that needs to be answered yet, either.

“We’re going to cross that bridge when we come to it, because those are not easy decisions and they’re best made with the context of everything else going on,” Elias said. “But that’s, I think, something to keep in mind. Like we won’t just take some of our best starters and turn them into relievers just for a short-term fix -- or at least we won’t do it without being thoughtful about it.”

Throughout MLB history, it’s been common to see young starters come up from the Minors and cut their teeth in a big league bullpen. Longtime Orioles fans can recall Hall of Famer Jim Palmer working as a reliever as a 19-year-old in 1965.

It’s happened more recently, too. Wells pitched out of Baltimore’s bullpen in 2021, then returned to starting in ‘22. Hall could be the next example if he starts in ‘23, even if that’s at Triple-A Norfolk at the beginning of the year.

“Being in the rotation is so valuable that you want to give guys that you feel like have the opportunity to start the opportunity to,” manager Brandon Hyde said.

Hall, a first-round Draft pick in 2017, clearly still deserves that chance. He’s made only one start in the Majors and impressed coming up through the Minors. His high-octane fastball and multiple breaking pitches give him a ton of potential for big league success.

But Hall acknowledges he could end up back at Triple-A temporarily because of the roster squeeze this spring.

“Whatever they decide is what I’ll do,” Hall said. “I’m going to perform no matter where I go and give myself the best chance to get up there and help the team.”

The bullpen situation could also play a factor in whether Hall has to pitch in relief or if Wells (or another starting candidate) has to return to the ‘pen. The Orioles are expecting to be without right-hander Dillon Tate (right flexor forearm strain) until late April/early May, and closer Félix Bautista (left knee sprain/right shoulder soreness) is questionable for Opening Day.

A lot of pitching factors to consider, with plenty more developments likely to occur before the end of Spring Training. That’s why everybody on the 40-man roster with starting experience will remain in the rotation mix -- for now.

“I think as we get closer to breaking [camp], then we’ll kind of figure out where we are roster-wise and we’ll see who’s going to break with us and who’s not,” Hyde said. “I definitely want to keep in their minds that they’re rotation candidates. They’re getting an opportunity to start.”