PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. — When things settled down after Orioles manager Buck Showalter managed two games — one on Sunday afternoon 86 miles down the road in Fort Myers and another in Sarasota that night — he found much more to be heartened by than just a pair of Grapefruit League victories. And he needed to make that known.
Showalter texted Orioles scouting director Gary Rajsich, the man who helms their amateur drafts, to tell him how impressed he was with what the Orioles did in that first split-squad game Sunday against the Boston Red Sox.
Behind top pitching prospect Hunter Harvey, the Orioles ran out six of their own minor league pitchers — and highly rated ones at that. Many were recent high draft picks still in the low minors, but their promise is evident and their poise in shutting down the Red Sox’s A lineup was clear. That night, reigning Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year Alex Wells, 21, pitched a scoreless inning in the home game.
“That's about as encouraging a day that we've had in a while," Showalter said.
For an organization whose development of young pitching comes under intense scrutiny, and whose offseason has been defined by the lack of enthusiasm around the homegrown options to supplement former top picks Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman in the starting rotation, everyone in the organization took notice of what happened Sunday and what it could mean for the future.
"Sunday was a big day for the organization, because on display was the future of the pitching of the organization, in large part," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "We had seven pitchers who pitched in the game who were scouted, signed, developed by the club. They all had good pitches, and they all battled during their outings."
Nothing will erase that the Orioles have had to trade and dabble in free agency to fill their rotation with the likes of Ubaldo Jiménez, Wade Miley, Yovani Gallardo, Andrew Cashner and now Chris Tillman in the past few years. Nor will anything bring back castoffs Jake Arrieta, Parker Bridwell, Zach Davies and Eduardo Rodríguez who found success elsewhere.
But there's a quality in the depth being built in the low minors that many around the Orioles feel is different.
"We're starting to develop some depth in pitching," director of player development Brian Graham said. "When you look at the young pitchers who are going to be in [Low-A] Delmarva, you look at some good young bodies, and some good young arms. Certainly, the combination of pitchers that we have that are starting to bunch together at the lower levels is something we haven't had in the past."
The two pitchers who worked first in that Boston game, Harvey and premium left-hander Tanner Scott, need no introduction. Harvey was the team's top pick in 2013 who is back to his promising self after three seasons out with injuries, including Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Scott and his triple-digit fastball are ticketed for the major league bullpen in short order.
The ones who followed them, however, are recent additions the club has reason to be hopeful for. Left-hander Keegan Akin was a second-round pick in 2016 who made an adjustment last May and posted a 2.97 ERA from that point on at High-A Frederick. Last year's third-round pick, right-hander Michael Baumann, struck out a batter per inning for Short-A Aberdeen in 2017 and followed Akin's scoreless inning with one of his own.
Baumann's rotation-mate in Aberdeen last year, Brenan Hanifee, followed with a clean sixth inning. Hanifee, 19, is a high school draftee selected in the fourth round in 2016, has a promising sinker and a projectable frame. Zac Lowther, a deceptive lefty drafted in the second round in 2017, joined them for two outs against the Red Sox, and 2015 11th-round pick Ryan Meisinger rounded off the group.
Wells' scoreless inning in that night's win over the Philadelphia Phillies was just a bonus.
Outside of Meisinger, all of the homegrown pitchers used that day are rated in the top 20 of this year's Baseball America organizational rankings. That the group didn't include either of the past two first-round picks — Cody Sedlock from 2016 and DL Hall from 2017 — speaks to the Orioles' new approach in hoarding pitching. Simply put, they know how difficult it is to sign quality free-agent pitchers to pitch in their division and ballpark on their budget, so it needs to come from within.
"We've put more time and effort into pitching and our development program, because of the need at the major league level," Duquette said. "There's an acute need — there's always an acute need — for starting pitchers.
"We were focused on the college pitching, obviously, in 2016 and 2017. We made that a priority, to move the pitchers up on our draft board that our scouts liked. We had identified and scouted and drafted and signed some hitters before that were coming along — DJ Stewart, [Ryan] Mountcastle, Austin Hays, [Chance] Sisco. They were coming to the big leagues, so the last couple of years we decided to focus on the pitching depth. And other than Harvey — and Hanifee is a high school kid — they're all good college pitchers."
The coalescence of that group of college arms, Hanifee and Wells, plus hard-throwing right-hander Matthias Dietz (who Showalter said has thrown 100 mph in minor league camp) and 20-year-old Dominican right-hander Ofelky Peralta are creating the kind of logjam in the low minors with their arms that can only be considered a good problem.
There's a gap above them, with only David Hess in the high minors as a homegrown starting pitching prospect, in part because of trades and some pitching-light drafts in the middle of this decade. But the hope is that next time the Orioles face a situation like the one from this offseason, where the club needed major league-ready starting pitching and didn't have it, there will be options even with the expected attrition to come.
"Once they get to that Double-A level, they're [on the radar]," Showalter said. "It'll be interesting to see where it ends up. Without trying to name names, it's not one guy we're talking about. It's not just Hunter Harvey — it's a number of guys. It's encouraging. It really is."
Said Graham: "There's a lot of nice-looking pitchers — are there any No. 1 starters or No. 2 starters? Possibly not. But are there five or six guys who can be good major league pitchers? Possibly. You have to be realistic, even as excited as we are, about the pitching. You have to be realistic. I'm not sure if there's a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in that group, but there's a group of good-looking pitchers."