The Orioles’ stagnant start to the offseason has resulted in only a plethora of minor-league signings – primarily pitchers – that has the club’s major league spring training roster approaching 30 pitchers without the Orioles truly attacking their biggest offseason obstacle: Rebuilding their starting rotation.
This time next week, the rumors will be circulating out of the annual Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and the Orioles will be connected to many of them. The offseason has been slow overall, as teams wait out where Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani lands and whether reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton will find a new home.
Meanwhile, the Orioles have three empty spots in their starting rotation to fill, and need more than that to stock the depth necessary to supplement a rotation over the course of a long season.
If the season started today, right-hander Mike Wright would likely have a spot in the Orioles’ starting rotation alongside right-handers Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Even though he spent last year working out of the bullpen in 13 major league appearances, he would enter the season among the pitchers with the most big league starting experience with 21 career major league starts, which would be third to Gausman and Bundy.
This is undoubtedly an important season for Wright. He will enter spring training out of minor league options. The Orioles have used him as a starter and a reliever, and now they will have to figure out where Wright is best utilized.
Wright has put up strong numbers as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues – he owns a 3.53 ERA in 71 games (70 starts) at the Triple-A level – but hasn’t been able to duplicate that consistency at the major league level. Two seasons ago, he earned a spot in the team’s Opening Day starting rotation, but he posted a 6.22 ERA in 12 starts that season, and eventually saw more success pitching out of the bullpen, where he had a 3.27 ERA in six relief appearances.
He spent most of last year starting at Triple-A Norfolk, and spent nearly two months on the major league disabled list with right elbow bursitis following a call-up in May that saw him post a 5.56 ERA in 11 1/3 relief innings.
Pitching in relief last year, Wright began to throw his sinker more in an effort to pitch to contact instead of primarily leaning on his four-seam fastball. He threw his sinker nearly just as often (31.1 percent) as his four-seamer (31.0 percent) in 2017, which is a significant shift from his previous time in the majors, when he threw his four-seamer 54.8 percent of the time in 2015 and 47.3 percent of the time in 2016. That led to only a slightly higher groundball rate (43.7 percent) than his career mark (40.7), but his .263 opponent’s batting average was the lowest of his career.
Those numbers point in the right direction – even if his 5.76 ERA doesn’t – but the Orioles still aren’t sold that Wright’s future is as a reliever. His stuff – a mid-90s fastball along with a mid-80s slider and changeup – profiles to be a strong late-inning arm, but it’s not as simple as when the Orioles moved closer Zach Britton to the bullpen when he entered spring training out of minor league options, because Wright has struggled with certain aspects of relief work, specifically recovering quickly.
The Orioles only used Wright in long relief, concerned that he needed multiple days off to recover between relief outings. Wright pitched just once on consecutive days – his first two outings after being recalled from Norfolk – and he allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings on the second day of the back-to-back outings. After that, Wright never pitched with less than two days off between relief appearances.
If he’s limited to pitching once every three or four days, that doesn’t help the Orioles bullpen, especially now that he’s out of minor league options, so the Orioles will be tempted to take one more look at Wright as a big league starter. And there’s no reason to not go into spring training with the intention of stretching him out to start regardless of what starting pitching acquisitions the Orioles make this offseason.
During his 2016 season, Wright’s biggest obstacle as a starter was when hitters jumped on his four-seamer because he couldn’t keep opposing hitters off balance with his secondary pitches. The key to improving that will be establishing his breaking ball.
Last season, Wright saw more swings and misses off his slider than he ever has, recording an 18.05 whiff percentage while throwing that pitch. That came as he threw his slider a career-high 31.3 percent of the time. He basically threw his four-seamer, sinker and slider an equal amount, and used his changeup less (6.7 percent), but also drew more whiffs (17.24 percent) than he ever has.
In a small sample size last year, Wright also posted career bests in strikeouts per nine innings (10.1) and walks per nine innings (2.5). It’s difficult to compare that success to starting because those outings came in relief, but the combination of Wright inducing more groundballs with his sinker, missing more bats with his offspeed pitches and not relying so much on his four-seamer are good building blocks for success as a starter. Whether he can do that at the major league level remains to be seen, but it’s now or never for the Orioles to determine where Wright best fits in their plans.
Note: Wright’s nonprofit organization, Wright State of Mind, is holding an online auction featuring autographed memorabilia through Monday night. Items include signed balls, bats, jerseys, equipment and photos from current and former Orioles players and members of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Wright co-founded the organization – which raises money for dementia research, awareness and support -- with his sister, Tiffany, after their mother, Sherry, was diagnosed with Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia in March 2015. The auction is online at https://one.bidpal.net/WSM/welcome.