With his expected major league debut Tuesday, Josh Rogers is set to become the first left-hander to start a game for the Orioles this season. But he’s not the first to get a shot with that distinction.
Before Rogers came over from the New York Yankees in last month’s trade for closer Zach Britton, it was another crafty left-hander from the Yankees organization, Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes Jr., who competed for a rotation spot in spring training.
That experiment never took hold despite plenty of excitement conjured by minicamp bullpen sessions from the 23-year-old left-hander, who lacked premium fastball velocity but had good secondary pitches and a reputation as a pitchability guy who limits damage.
On Tuesday, Rogers becomes the latest to get a chance to prove that archetype can work in the major league rotation after a successful month at Triple-A Norfolk.
In five starts for the Tides, Rogers had a 2.02 ERA with 18 strikeouts against seven walks with a 1.09 WHIP in 30 1/3 innings. He came to the Orioles organization from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where he had a 3.95 ERA in 19 starts with 83 strikeouts against 29 walks with a 1.34 WHIP.
By comparison, Cortes, who allowed 10 hits and four walks in 4 2/3 innings of major league relief before the Orioles returned him to the Yankees, has a 3.28 ERA in 21 appearances (16 starts) with 86 strikeouts, 33 walks and a 1.15 WHIP for the Rail Riders.
For the results to be different at this level for Rogers, it will come down to command, as it does with any other young arm. In a recent start at Pawtucket, Rogers’ fastball was mostly 89-90 mph, topping out at 91, but he commanded it well with some deception from his three-quarters delivery. He complements his fastball with an average changeup and a slider that one evaluator in attendance rated a tick above average.
That differs somewhat from Cortes’ arsenal. His breaking ball was a bigger, sweepy version somewhere between a slider and a curveball, and major league hitters picked that up easily.
Rogers, though, will get the first crack at what’s expected to be a long list of auditions in the coming weeks and years for the Orioles to develop a left-handed starting pitcher of their own. Wade Miley and Jayson Aquino made starts as southpaws in 2017, with only Miley earning that distinction in 2016.
Rogers joins a list of highly-touted left-handers in Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Alex Wells and Bruce Zimmermann who the Orioles will try and establish as left-handed rotation options. Akin has a bit better fastball than the rest of that group, but all get by on an ability to command their deceptive fastballs and use their guile on the mound to navigate minor league lineups.
The Orioles were fooled a little bit by Cortes’ statistical background and the small sample of what they saw at minicamp. As they take another crack at a left-handed starter developed, but not ultimately kept, by the Yankees, they’ll be hoping the only deception involved is with Rogers’ fastball.
Manager Buck Showalter said after Monday night’s game that he didn’t want to put too much pressure on Rogers, but described him as “an Indiana kid who’s got a feel for pitching” and was an Orioles target in the 2015 draft.
“I don’t want to say something and all of a sudden it doesn’t happen tomorrow — it’s the biggest jump in sports, the level of hitters you face and the levels of pitchers you face,” Showalter said. “But his pitchability, that’s a common theme. He’s got three or four pitches, and has got a feel for pitching. We’ll see if we can knock the anxiety off. It’s not rust, but once you get through that…”