The Orioles used 18 starting pitchers in 2019, one shy of the franchise record. They used 10 in just 60 games in '20, three of whom are no longer with the club. For a rebuilding team searching for consistency on the mound, depth was always going to be important in '21.
Given the circumstances, it’s arguably even more so now. Because of the pandemic, there will be at least 918 more innings to cover on the mound this season than last, all by pitchers who threw career-low workloads in 2020. It’s a challenge O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias called “so unprecedented that there is no playbook for it,” and has Baltimore brainstorming several nontraditional strategies to help combat.
“None of us, while we continue to talk about this from all angles, has the exact formula mapped out for what's best for each and every one of these guys in 2021,” Elias said. “All I can say is we're going to do the best that we possibly can to navigate it, with the player's health and development first and foremost, and then also just the organizational goals and needs of the Orioles, but as a secondary factor.”
Translation: Young pitchers won’t be pushed. Innings will need to be covered. So expect to see a bunch of arms pitch for the Orioles in 2021.
“Because of last year and the lack of innings thrown, I don’t think any of us have any idea of what this year is going to look like from the pitching side,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “That’s something we’ve talked about; creating as much depth in the rotation, as many long guys as possible, because I could see us using a lot of pitchers.”
With that as a backdrop, let’s take a look at that depth heading into the year:
The projected rotation: John Means, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Matt Harvey, Jorge López
Félix Hernández's recent bout of right elbow discomfort and uncertain timeline has him doubtful for Opening Day. That could change, but if it doesn’t, this group of five is most likely to head north in the O’s rotation. Means is the undisputed ace and youngsters Kremer and Akin are looking to build off solid 2020 debuts; their workload restrictions were a reason Harvey and Hernández were brought in on Minor League deals. López is out of options and appears to benefit the most from Hernández's uncertain health status.
LHP Bruce Zimmermann
Consider Zimmermann the most likely to shake up the above arrangement. The rookie has been far and away the Orioles' best pitcher this spring, striking out 10 across nine shutout innings in Grapefruit League play entering Monday and turning heads along the way.
What he’s doing isn’t unlike what Means did in 2019, which is to emerge from the roster periphery to impact the rotation in surprise fashion. Zimmermann wasn’t a high Draft pick and was never a big prospect. But his stuff is ticking up this spring (fastball 94-95 mph, up from 90-93), and his ability to both start and pitch in bulk relief has Baltimore viewing him at least as the next man up. Zimmermann is also on the 40-man roster and has options, which both helps and hurts his Opening Day chances.
LHP Wade LeBlanc
At the onset of camp, it looked as if LeBlanc would battle Harvey and Hernández for one of two open back-end rotation jobs. To that end, LeBlanc has outpitched the other two, scattering two runs over his first five spring innings. But Hunter Harvey’s oblique injury cleared space for the O’s to carry an additional long-man type in the ‘pen, eliminating that sliver of roster intrigue. It looks like the 36-year-old LeBlanc, a journeyman of nine teams, will be back with Baltimore after producing an 8.06 ERA in six starts in 2020 before he sustained a season-ending stress fracture in his left elbow.
RHP Thomas Eshelman
The crafty righty was serviceable in a swingman role last season, going 3-1 with a 3.89 ERA in 12 games (four starts, three games finished). His 6.50 ERA in 2019 was less to marvel at. Unlike many on this list, Eshelman retains a Minor League option, providing roster flexibility the Orioles value highly. He will probably begin the year at the alternate training site, but he should be in Baltimore before long.
"The last couple of years, [Eshelman] has done an amazing job in the roles we put him in,” Hyde said. “He’s been a staff savior.”
RHP Cesar Valdez
Is Valdez the Orioles' closer? Is he a starter? Is he something between? All? None? Simply put, the O's see Valdez as someone who can pitch in any role, someone they’ll certainly rely on for bulk innings in some fashion this season.
“We feel like he can do so many things,” Hyde said. “I can always shorten him up. I don’t want to stretch him out late. He can fill a variety of roles for us. You saw him do that for us last year a little bit, and he can do even more. He starts in winter ball, he’s always been a starter in his career. So we’re going to stretch him out at least as a long bulk-type guy and we’ll see how our bullpen stacks up at the end of camp and see where he fits in.”
RHP Michael Baumann, LHP Zac Lowther, LHP Alexander Wells
Depth comes in many forms, and this trio is lumped together because they are all prospects, each among the Orioles’ Top 20, per MLB Pipeline. The pandemic wiped out the year each would’ve spent at Triple-A, meaning all will require at least a little time there in 2021. But the debuts for all three are imminent, perhaps as early as this summer. To start, they’ll comprise the bulk of the rotation at Norfolk.
RHP Mickey Jannis
Jannis caught the Internet’s attention recently with this video; perhaps it's just the kind of break he needs. The 33-year-old knuckleballer is a former 44th-round Draft pick who’s pitched for three MLB organizations, two independent leagues and in Australia, reaching as high as Triple-A with the Mets in 2019. This is his second Spring Training with the Orioles.
RHP Conner Greene
Signed to a Minor League deal this winter, Greene is a former Jays, Cardinals and Royals prospect who was traded for Randal Grichuk. He’s a hard-throwing righty with both starting and relieving experience, most recently making 16 starts at Double-A in 2019. He’s pitched only in one- and two-inning stints this spring, but could theoretically be stretched out for a multi-inning relief or a bulk-innings role.