SARASOTA, Fla. — When Mike Elias became the Orioles’ executive vice president and general manager in November 2018, he inherited a collection of upper-minor league starting pitchers from the previous front office. To this point, none have established themselves as major league fixtures.
Monday, Elias challenged the members of that group still in major league camp — Keegan Akin, Mike Baumann, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther and Bruce Zimmermann — to “step up” this season or risk being replaced by a group of starters coming up behind them.
“We’re still really counting on this group, Zimmermann, Lowther, Kremer, Baumann, the guys that are on the 40-man — Keegan Akin — that we’ve been pitching the last couple of years, some of those guys need to step up,” Elias said. “That’s why we’re struggling right now, because we haven’t gotten a real cemented breakout from one of those guys.
“We still have high hopes for them and want some of those guys to click this year because it’s gonna be tough if they don’t, and we’re going to have to move on to other people.”
Each of the five — who by the end of this month will all be 26 or 27 years old — spent time in the majors in 2021, and Zimmermann’s 5.04 ERA was the best of the bunch. In the wake of a trade that removed half of the Orioles’ experienced relief options from their bullpen, there is likely a place for all of them on the club’s season-opening roster, given the Orioles will possibly use tandem starters for their three rotation spots behind John Means and Jordan Lyles. Four days before the Orioles start the regular season, none of the group has been assured a roster spot. Meanwhile, Tyler Wells, who pitched exclusively in relief during his rookie year in 2021, will begin the year in the rotation, with one of the others — likely left-handers Akin or Lowther — following him as a long reliever.
Zimmermann and Lowther both pitched in Sunday’s 9-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, combining to allow eight runs and 14 baserunners in 5 1/3 innings in their final outings of this shortened spring. Akin and Kremer also struggled in their most recent appearances, though Baumann was effective in 2 1/3 scoreless innings Sunday and has flashed improved velocity relative to his September bullpen cameo.
“You want to see them go out and perform,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “You want to see your guys have success, see them perform. Some days, we have. Some days, we haven’t.
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“Hopefully when we get under the lights and a third deck, they can raise it up a little bit better, but I just think our command’s a little bit off with those younger guys right now. … It’s not about stuff. It’s about command with those guys and just gotta continue to improve.”
An Ellicott City native lined up to possibly start Baltimore’s home opener in a week, Zimmermann agreed with Elias’ sentiment of these pitchers needing to take a step forward in 2022.
“I think all of us understand what’s at stake for helping this team win games as well as helping us in our own careers and really setting us up for the next few years,” Zimmermann said. “I take that as a welcome challenge, go out there and kind of build on what I did last year and continue to prove that I can start in the AL East and I can help this team win ballgames.”
All had success in the high minors in 2019, but the lost season in 2020 cost each a vital year of development. Akin, Kremer and Zimmermann all made their major league debuts that year, while Lowther, Baumann and Alexander Wells — who has already been optioned out of major league camp — reached Baltimore last season. Each had successful stretches of various lengths but largely struggled.
As Elias suggested, even if they do begin the year as Baltimore starters, they’ll have to pitch well to avoid ceding those jobs when Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Kyle Bradish — the Orioles’ top three pitching prospects — arrive. Rodriguez and Hall were the Orioles’ last two first-round picks under Dan Duquette, Elias’ predecessor, with Rodriguez since becoming baseball’s top pitching prospect. Bradish was one of four pitchers the Orioles acquired when Elias traded right-hander Dylan Bundy to the Los Angeles Angels in December 2019.
While Rodriguez will begin the year with Triple-A Norfolk, Hall and Bradish are staying in Sarasota to build up innings, with hopes that all three will be Orioles by sometime this summer. The pressure is on those who have beaten them to Baltimore to stick around when they do.
“Our pitching staff, it’s going to be a struggle sometimes to cover innings,” Elias said. “It’s something that we’re certainly aware of and worrying about and talking about. But there’s a lot of opportunity here for the players that are here and that are coming.”