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Orioles offseason positional breakdown: Outside the reliable John Means, little is settled in starting rotation

Without playoff baseball filling their days, the early fall is an occasion for the Orioles to take stock of their roster and start planning how they’ll put together their 2022 team.

That doesn’t just include which players will be back and who might replace them. For a team like the Orioles, who are starting to bring some of the products from executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ promised “elite talent pipeline” up to the majors, that planning also includes forecasting when their prospects could join the major league team and start contributing.

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At some positions, prospects climbing the ladder will find an established part of their future blocking their way to the majors. Others don’t have much resistance once they arrive, and others are somewhere in between.

This month, we’ll break down how the Orioles got through 2021 at each position, which prospects are on the cusp of joining that mix and how all that will color their offseason plans.

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So, far, we’ve reviewed the catchers, first basemen, the infielders and outfielders. Now, it’s onto the mound, where the starting pitching remains an area where John Means is alone in his reliability.

The mainstays

Means would be the only certain qualifier in this category, but he had two fewer starts than Matt Harvey and only one more than Jorge López, so all three deserve some notice here. Means was the best of the bunch, with a standout first two months of the season where he was one of the best pitchers in baseball and then two-plus months after a shoulder injury that were good, not great. His harsh criticism of his outings often deceived one into believing he wasn’t pitching well down the stretch, but he had a 3.62 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP and 8.22 strikeouts per nine innings for the Orioles.

López struck out 8.28 per nine but also walked over four batters per inning to bring his WHIP to 1.63 and his ERA to 6.07. He dazzled at times but struggled as he got deep into games and was ultimately moved to the bullpen late in the season before his September was cut short with an ankle injury.

Harvey, too, had his season end early after a lingering knee injury landed him on the injured list in September. He didn’t strike many batters out, with 6.7 strikeouts per nine, but had terrible luck. Opponents posted a .331 batting average on balls in play and he recorded a 4.60 FIP (fielding independent pitching, which calculates ERA based on walks, strikeouts, and home runs), belying a better year than his 6.27 ERA might indicate.

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Means was one of three Orioles to pitch more than 100 innings in 2019, along with Dylan Bundy and Gabriel Ynoa. Bundy was traded that winter and Ynoa was outrighted off the roster and became a free agent that offseason. In 2020, Means and Alex Cobb were the only pitchers with 10 starts, then Cobb was traded. It’s possible Means might be the only pitcher with over 100 innings back this year, too, as Harvey will be a free agent and López’s potential arbitration raise could make his roster spot tenuous.

The Orioles' Keegan Akin pitches during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 22 in Philadelphia.
The Orioles' Keegan Akin pitches during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 22 in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

The rest of the major league factors

Outside of that group, five Orioles pitchers made at least 10 starts. Keegan Akin had 17 with a 6.33 ERA, Dean Kremer had 13 with a 7.55 ERA and Bruce Zimmermann had 13 with a 5.04 ERA. Those three rookies each had their moments of being effective, but the quick familiarity of the American League East put them on an even steeper uphill climb in their first full seasons. Each, though, will likely have a chance to win a rotation spot in the spring.

It’s unclear whether the last pitcher with double-digit starts will get to say the same, as Spenser Watkins’ feel-good start to his major league career soured as the season went on. He had an 8.07 ERA in 16 games (10 starts).

Rookie left-handers Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther made eight and six starts apiece, with 6.75 and 6.67 ERAs, respectively, showing the challenges their finesse brand of pitching can face in the majors.

The brightest spot of the late part of the season, though, was Chris Ellis, who started six games with a 2.49 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP after being claimed off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays. Ellis seems like the type who can get another chance come spring, but really, anyone in this group can. Outside of Means, there are very few solidified rotation candidates on the roster at the moment.

Orioles top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez pitches in a Baysox game on June 15.
Orioles top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez pitches in a Baysox game on June 15. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The future

The Orioles’ top two pitching prospects, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, represent two of the most promising young arms anywhere in the minors, with Rodriguez recognized widely as the game’s best pitching prospect. Rodriguez should be in major league camp in the spring and start at Triple-A Norfolk, making his arrival in the big leagues imminent, while Hall is battling elbow problems but could be at Norfolk as well come spring.

Beyond them, near-term help is hard to assess. Kyle Bradish, acquired in December 2019 for Bundy, spent most of 2021 with the Tides and finished strong, but might not be ready to push for a rotation piece and is viewed with skepticism outside the organization as a future major league starter, even if the Orioles believe in him.

Mike Baumann made a few relief appearances for the Orioles in September, but they hope to keep developing him as a starter provided he can get back to using all of his pitches like he had before an elbow injury last summer.

Beyond that, the Orioles’ pitching prospect base is mostly in the low minors. Some prospects, like Drew Rom and Kyle Brnovich, made it to Double-A this year. Others, including Brandon Young, Zach Peek and Jean Pinto, all impressed at Low-A Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen. Others, including Brenan Hanifee and Carter Baumler, are still candidates to contribute down the line despite Tommy John elbow reconstruction taking away their seasons.

Truthfully, though, an important aspect of the Orioles’ future pitching plans is one or two of the pitchers who either graduated or debuted this summer blossoming. They don’t need any of them to join Means at the top of the rotation; that’s what Rodriguez and Hall are for. True back-end starting depth, though, is incredibly valuable. Even just one or two of the pitchers they hoped would do more this year panning out will make the future much more tenable from a pitching standpoint.

The offseason outlook

The Orioles can hope for better if they go into next year with this year’s pitching staff, but they certainly can’t expect a different result if they don’t add some different arms to the mix. Whether that comes in the form of an established major league starter depends on the market, but it’s hard to envision the Orioles making that kind of commitment before they’re ready to start competing.

Instead, the offseason will likely feature plenty of minor league free agents, all of whom can look at the fact that Watkins, Konner Wade, Mickey Jannis, Manny Barreda, Conner Greene and Dusten Knight all made major league debuts deep into their careers by signing with the Orioles and banking on an opportunity developing.

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They’re likely selling that same opportunity to a host of minor league free agents at the moment, who are more likely to be a part of the solution than big-ticket free-agent deals. That could take the form of Triple-A lifers in the fall or major league washouts in the spring, but they’ll all serve the same purpose.

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