SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Orioles arrived in camp with nine starting rotation candidates and a whole bunch of questions, with seven of those pitchers set to jostle for three open spots. With two weeks left until Opening Day, the club is yet to name its starter for that assignment. But their rotation picture is beginning to crystallize as a whole.
It continued to do so in their 6-3 victory over the Braves on Tuesday night, when No. 11 prospect Keegan Akin was befallen by a big fly for the third time in four spring outings. This time it was Cristian Pache whose three-run homer spoiled a night Akin struck out four and scattered four other baserunners over three innings, swelling his Grapefruit League ERA to 7.45. He was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk after the game, officially trimming the number of rotation candidates in Orioles camp to six.
By sending out Rule 5 picks Brandon Bailey, Michael Rucker and now Akin, the Orioles sliced a crowded field that still includes incumbent Asher Wojciechowski and new addition Kohl Stewart, plus experienced southpaws Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone. Let’s take a look at how their competition has shaped up to this point:
Nothing has changed at the top, with the Orioles expecting John Means and Alex Cobb to slide into the first two slots in some order. Cobb was limited early due to the flu bug that went around Orioles camp, but he is fully healed from hip surgery and his status isn’t in question for the start of the season. Cobb is scheduled to return to Grapefruit League action Thursday after throwing simulated games his last several turns. Means seems in line to start Opening Day against the Yankees after breaking out as a rookie in 2019.
Behind them, Wojciechowski and LeBlanc probably had the most to lose with shaky springs. Both have had the opposite, leaving Stewart and Milone left for the final spot. Stewart didn’t debut until March 8 due to right biceps soreness, but assuaged some doubt by throwing 45 pitches in that outing. He could theoretically make three more outings before camp breaks and open the season on the active roster.
Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker, after the Orioles returned both Rule 5 picks to the Astros and Cubs, respectively. Bailey allowed a run over four Grapefruit League innings, while Rucker was unscored upon across three relief outings. Orioles general manager Mike Elias cited flexibility concerns for the decision to return both, as neither could be optioned if they broke camp with the club. Akin will begin the year at Triple-A after going 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA at that level in 2019.
Who has helped their stock?
By both holding opponents to one run across five spring innings thus far, Wojciechowski and LeBlanc seem to have solidified their cases for the Nos. 3 and 4 jobs. Cobb always had a place on the team, but needed to stay healthy and has to this point. And though neither is likely to arrive in Baltimore until at least mid-summer, the club has been impressed with both No. 9 prospect Dean Kremer (5 1/3 IP, 0 ER) and No. 28 Bruce Zimmermann (7 2/3 IP, 9 SO).
Zimmerman, in particular, continues to turn heads after adding velocity and reaching Triple-A last summer. The 25-year-old lefty’s fastball lived in the high-80s when he was acquired from the Braves in the July 2018 Kevin Gausman trade. It’s consistently been hitting 94 mph this spring.
Who’s stock has dropped?
Akin has held his own at times, but some sequencing issues and trouble pitching out of the stretch hint at more seasoning necessary at Triple-A Norfolk. The Orioles have not been able to see as much as they’d like to of veteran lefty Milone, who has been limited to mostly back-field work due to left trap soreness. The Orioles inked Milone to a Minor League deal two days after pitchers and catchers officially reported, but he’s pitched just two Grapefruit League innings and fallen behind LeBlanc and others.
Who’s separated themselves out of the depth options?
Though Tom Eshelman, Ty Blach, Chandler Shepherd all made starts for the Orioles in 2019, there may not be room for all of them at Norfolk given how many prospects are set to fill out the Tides’ rotation. Eshelman has been the best of the bunch, pitching to a 2.25 ERA in three spring outings. Blach (8.53 ERA), Shepherd (6.75) and Rob Zastryzny (9.00) have all struggled in limited duty. The Orioles also weren’t able to see much of Brady Rodgers, who is a Triple-A rotation candidate but did not pitch in big league camp due a right biceps issue.
What can change?
The Orioles can still add a new face either before or after spring ends, like they did last year with Dan Straily. Straily was an example of the type of out-of-options player that typically become available on the waiver wire or free agent market as teams make final cuts. It’s possible they take a similar flier this time around.