In his success atop the Orioles rotation the past two seasons, left-hander John Means has been peerless. In terms of where he is in his career, now he can say the same thing.
Entering spring training next week in Sarasota, Florida, the Orioles have all kinds of pitching options that are vastly different.
There are the rookies in Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann who made their debuts in 2020. There are the roster-restricted candidates in Jorge López, who is out of minor league options, and Rule 5 draft picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, who would need to spend the entire season on the active roster.
And now, there are three veteran options on minor league contracts who can earn jobs in the big league rotation with little resistance: Matt Harvey, Félix Hernández and Wade LeBlanc.
Such depth in options, even if so many of them are uncertainties behind the steady Means, is certainly necessary entering a season like this. Major league pitching staffs will have to cover almost three times as many innings as they did in the 62-game season in 2020, and there’s likely no amount of starting pitching that can be considered enough.
But Harvey’s signing foreshadows several things about how the Orioles could come out of spring training and go through the 2021 season in terms of their starting rotation.
They’re putting a unique challenge to Chris Holt.
Chris Holt’s first season as Orioles pitching coach will be a challenging one, and his long-term goal on the job will be to continue the development of their younger pitchers once they get to the major league level.
But with so much tied up in Harvey, Hernández and LeBlanc this year, he’ll be off to a good start if the Orioles are able to get anything meaningful out of that group. All three need to pitch better than they have in recent years to do that, but the potential is there for value if the Orioles can get the best out of them.
Harvey, in particular, could have more in the tank than he’s shown in recent years. He worked with an old colleague of Holt in Doug White, who was his pitching coach with the Los Angeles Angels, and thus has some idea of what type of philosophy he’ll be encountering once he arrives in Sarasota.
None of what Holt wants to work with him on in terms of pitch selection or how his arsenal works will be new to Harvey. The Orioles will have signed him with the idea that they can get the most out of him, and same goes for Hernández and LeBlanc.
The Orioles wouldn’t be using three of their limited camp spots this spring on these kinds of pitchers if they didn’t think they needed them. They could have rolled with what they had a few weeks ago and brought some more prospects to camp. Now, the challenge is to get at least two of them ready to pitch in the toughest division in baseball.
They don’t want Akin or Kremer to have a free ride.
This time a month ago, before the Orioles traded Alex Cobb, their rookie rotation shoo-ins Kremer and Akin likely felt they were just that based on how they pitched in their 2020 debuts. It was presumed they’d follow Means and Cobb in the rotation without much of a challenge.
Now, even with Cobb gone, they’re set up to have to earn a rotation job, and there are legitimate candidates who could replace them. If one doesn’t have his best stuff in spring training and the three veterans in LeBlanc, Hernández and Harvey pitch well, a rookie might be ticketed for the alternate training site to bide his time, just like last year.
Akin, Kremer and Zimmermann were going to have to earn a rotation spot either way. Now, it’s not necessarily an empty threat.
They don’t want to have to turn to pitchers who didn’t get Triple-A time last year.
Every pitcher the Orioles bring in on a minor league deal pushes the three starters they added to the 40-man roster — Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther — further down the depth chart, and that’s OK.
Each would have likely gotten a full season at Triple-A Norfolk last year but didn’t, and the lack of a minor league season affected each in different ways.
It’s not as simple as saying this move is to protect them, though. The Orioles would have two month’s worth of bullpen games every fifth day before they brought a starting pitching prospect up before he was deemed fully ready. Now, they could simply have a pitcher fans have heard of take those few months of rotation turns instead.
As exciting as it might be for the Orioles to get a look at them in spring training games in March, these recent roster additions might instead build slowly so they can be ready for when the Triple-A season begins as opposed to being ready for the April 1 Opening Day in Boston.
If there are veterans in the rotation at the beginning of the season, they probably won’t be by the end of it. That’s when the Orioles can start introducing some young pitchers to the big leagues and continue to showcase the work they’re doing with their prospects on the farm. Adding all of the pitchers they have recently will ensure it doesn’t have to happen before that.
The Rule 5 pitchers are on a short leash.
Before the coronavirus shut spring training down last March, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias delivered the somewhat surprising news that, with weeks left in camp, the Orioles were returning Rule 5 picks Branden Bailey and Michael Rucker to their former clubs.
The way he saw it then, it was best for all parties to move on since the Orioles would have to add LeBlanc and Tommy Milone (along with several others) to the 40-man roster once the season began considering the challenges of keeping Rule 5 players on the roster without the ability to option them.
Such challenges could exist this spring as well, so Sceroler and Wells — neither of whom were at their team’s alternate sites in 2020 — will have to adjust to a competitive environment quickly and make enough of an impression to stay.
Dark horse candidates shouldn’t be discounted.
Nine rotation candidates is plenty, but that’s discounting others the Orioles could give a look.
Thomas Eshelman is back in camp as a nonroster invitee and showed a knack for sticking around in 2020. César Valdez showed he could start in the Dominican Republic during winter ball, and wouldn’t be out of place being stretched out this spring just in case. Ashton Goudeau, a waiver claim in the fall, started at every level of the minors before debuting with the Colorado Rockies in relief in 2020.
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Nonroster invitee Conner Greene, plus camp reserves Josh Rogers, Konner Wade, Spenser Watkins and knuckleballer Mickey Jannis, all have significant starting experience as well.
Everyone in this category could be battling to make an impression for later in the season as well.
Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:
Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report
Feb. 23: Position players report
Feb. 27: First exhibition game vs. Atlanta Braves