SARASOTA, FLA. — The Orioles had 36 pitchers in big league camp before the first cuts were made last Sunday, a huge number that reflected a desperate need for immediate improvement on the mound and one that would soon validate one of baseball’s oldest aphorisms:
You can never have enough.
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was just saying that Friday afternoon, after he announced that the Orioles had sent both of the pitchers they picked up in December’s Rule 5 draft — Michael Rucker and Brandon Bailey — back to their original clubs.
If you’re confused, you’re probably not alone. Both Rucker and Bailey looked like they might be keepers, especially on a team that has seen its giant pitching staff hampered by an early spring flu outbreak and a series of physical setbacks that have forced manager Brandon Hyde and pitching coach Doug Brocail to juggle their pitching plans on an almost daily basis.
Though only one of those issues — an elbow injury that will keep reliever Evan Phillips from pitching for at least a month — has officially removed anyone from Opening Day roster consideration, the totality of all those minor disruptions is making it difficult to envision the strength in numbers that Elias hoped would result in a significantly improved pitching staff.
And if that improvement does not reveal itself soon, can the Orioles hope to be even marginally more competitive than they were on the way to 108 losses last season?
The top spring priority has been to identify enough capable starting pitchers to fill the large void behind second-year left-hander John Means, but we’re almost halfway through the exhibition season and the rotation is yet to take shape.
Part of that is by design. Veteran Alex Cobb had to be removed from his first exhibition start because of the lingering impact of the flu that also struck relievers Mychal Givens and Hunter Harvey and several position players. He hasn’t made an exhibition start since, but he has built up his pitch count in simulated games to keep him from facing division opponents and is expected to return to rotation against the Twins on March 12.
Still, with a checkered injury history that includes a hip procedure that cost him almost all of last season, Cobb understands that there will be skepticism about his ability to take his place near the front of the rotation until he takes the mound against the Yankees during the season-opening series at Oriole Park.
“Totally, I can see even me coming out of that game my last outing and it’s under a microscope just because of everything that happened,” he said, “but I think that (his increasing pitch counts) should quiet that a little bit.”
Left-hander Tommy Milone was signed to a non-roster deal early in camp and targeted for one of the last three slots in the rotation, but a sore trapezius has delayed his progression. He’s throwing again and says he thinks he’ll be able to catch up, but understands that if the soreness persists, Opening Week could be at risk.
“If I’m out for, let’s say, another week or so, that’s obviously a problem,’’ Milone said. “I’m assuming I can get out there pretty soon and if that’s the case, we’ll be fine.”
The Orioles also were hoping to get a good read on former fourth overall draft pick Kohl Stewart after the Minnesota Twins attempted to outright him in November. Manager Brandon Hyde was impressed with what he saw early in camp, but a sore bicep has kept Stewart from throwing in a game. He’s scheduled to make his competitive debut in an Orioles uniform on Sunday, but it is becoming increasingly likely he’ll start the season at either extended spring training or Triple-A Norfolk.
“I think those guys are a little behind, but all indications are that they are going to be able jump back in to the rotation battle,’’ Elias said. “Milone, in particular, he had a game under his belt and then had a little hiccup, but I think he can get back up to speed pretty quickly.”
If the season were to start today, Means and projected middle-of-the-rotation guys Asher Wojciechowski and Wade LeBlanc are the only experienced starters who have pitched multiple innings against outside competition. Keeping Rucker and Bailey around might have been comforting, but Elias explained that he could see no practical way of keeping either Rule 5 player at the big league level all season with teams now limited to 13 pitchers on their 26-man rosters.
The outlook is much more positive in the bullpen, where there actually is strength in numbers. Harvey and Givens are back in the mix and most of the other key veterans from last year’s relief corps are pitching well. So far, there are more relievers who haven’t been scored upon than there are jobs left to fill, and Elias has indicated that he may still be in the market for more pitching when other teams make their final cuts at the end of spring training.