BALTIMORE -- One by one, the Orioles are getting final 2021 looks at their young starters during this closing week of the season, with Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Bruce Zimmermann all taking one last turn through the rotation by Sunday’s season finale. Zimmermann returned Tuesday and will start again Sunday, while Wells finishes his year in Thursday’s home finale.
Wednesday was Lowther’s turn, the rookie southpaw heading into the offseason on a solid note despite Baltimore’s 6-0 loss to the Red Sox at Oriole Park. There was little Lowther could do about the defeat, the Orioles being shut out while he held Boston to two runs (one earned) over five-plus innings after being hit hard by the Red Sox twice previously.
“To be able to finish the season this way has been very encouraging and gives me a really good idea of what I need to work on going into the offseason,” Lowther said. “Getting in a rhythm up here has been really promising for me, to see that my stuff -- I don’t have to change anything -- I just need to have a plan, go attack these guys and do my thing up there.”
Wednesday’s loss did pull Baltimore back into a tie with Arizona for baseball’s most losses and the potential top overall pick in next year’s Draft. The shorter-term implications involve Lowther, who will likely arrive at Spring Training 2022 with a chance to win a rotation job. The Orioles will finish 2021 with only John Means’ starting slot earmarked for next year, with Zimmermann likely to land one as well. But even if they comb free agency for veteran depth as expected, they could still have as many as three rotation holes for Lowther, Wells and others to compete for come camp.
“This offseason is very important for me,” Lowther said. “Getting a taste of the competition up here, and having a clear plan going into the offseason about what I need to work on to give myself a chance to compete against the AL East and the rest of the league. So it’s very important, a little more important than previous offseasons.”
The Orioles' hope in thrusting young pitchers into an atmosphere of competition next spring is that some will separate themselves. That happened to some extent this year, when the Orioles opened camp with Zimmermann, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer fighting for rotation jobs and Lowther and Wells as depth at Triple-A. By season’s end, Zimmermann did the most to look like a contributor going forward, though he was limited to 12 starts by shoulder and ankle issues. Kremer (7.55 ERA) and Akin (6.63) both struggled, while Lowther and Wells were inconsistent in limited duty.
Meanwhile, six starts went to Lowther, who endured a clunker in his first career start but sprinkled in three strong outings in September. His 6.67 season ERA is largely the result of two seven-run outings -- May 8 vs. Boston and Sept. 12 vs. Toronto. Otherwise, Lowther pitched to a 2.33 ERA across four late-season starts. He struck out 30 and walked 13 in 29 2/3 total big league innings.
“It’s a small sample, but they are pitching in meaningful games against a team like this,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “So you see how they compete, you look at their stuff and how they deal with adversity. You watch guys get through innings, work through the lineup a couple times, against really good Major League hitters. That’s the evaluation we’re doing, and we take it into next year and see what happens.”