On the eve of last year’s Opening Day for the Orioles in Boston, MLB’s decision to expand the playoff field to eight teams per league fueled a bemusing yet pervasive sense of “anything can happen” surrounding the rebuilding club’s chances of a successful season.
Mileage may vary as to whether that came to fruition; a team that was competitive all year long and in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season still had the fifth-worst record in all of baseball.
Inarguably, though, those Orioles were a better and more enjoyable team than a year before, with rookies like Ryan Mountcastle and breakout stars like Anthony Santander and glimpses of success from familiar faces like Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart.
All that, plus the return of Trey Mancini, will carry on as positives the Orioles can build on into 2021. But there’s a big reason why there’s no talk of “Why not us?” this year.
A more realistic picture of what this could look like over a 162-game season will be the pitching-challenged 2019 season that seemed to feature a nightly, six-month struggle to get through games. Keeping the close games close was as challenging as not letting the others get out of hand.
The circumstances are different. Those 2019 Orioles set records for futility on the mound, allowing more home runs than any other staff in baseball history with a month left in the season and were using waiver claims and journeymen to get by as the organization was steadfast in not tapping their high-minors pitchers to potentially hinder their development.
This year’s challenges won’t be wholly rooted in talent, though it could certainly be a factor. What will challenge the Orioles is the addition of over 900 innings from what they had to cover in last year’s 60-game season as the team balances pitcher health in unprecedented circumstances, the development of their young arms and the expectation that it’s on the right track in year three of this rebuild.
Most of what the Orioles have done recently has been influenced by this. On Friday, they let go of presumptive starting second baseman Yolmer Sánchez to use his roster spot on swingman Adam Plutko, acquired in a trade from Cleveland. They decided to keep Rule 5 draft selections Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells despite knowing the challenges of carrying a pair of right-handers with mostly low-minors experience.
Including them on the 14-man pitching staff that’s expected to be named for Opening Day in Boston has its advantages and its drawbacks. They’re two pitchers in their age-26 seasons who can turn a lineup over and pitch two or three innings in relief. The flip side is the Orioles are likely not going to be able to carry a leverage reliever who was part of last year’s successful bullpen, even if whichever pitcher is left off the roster won’t be away for long.
“We’re trying to create depth in our organization, and depth at the upper levels,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Just because you don’t start with the team on April 1 doesn’t mean you’re not going to be on the team on April 7. Anything can happen. We’re going to use a lot of players this year. A lot of pitchers — hopefully not a ton of position players — but I see a lot of pitchers being used. We’re going to need depth at Triple-A. We’re going to need all these guys that are on the roster.”
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, speaking after he acquired Plutko for cash considerations, made clear that even meant pitching prospects on the 40-man roster who hadn’t yet pitched at Triple-A and weren’t significant parts of spring training, such as Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Isaac Mattson.
They brought some seasoned minor league pitchers of varying pedigrees to camp in Conner Greene, Thomas Eshelman, Spenser Watkins and knuckleballer Mickey Jannis. Maybe they’ll add pitching prospects Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith to the roster to cover some innings late in the season ahead of their pending Rule 5 draft eligibility. Perhaps they’ll strap a rocket to DL Hall and let his premium stuff grow in the big leagues.
“I think every organization in baseball is concerned about pitching innings,” Elias said. “These guys are coming off a shortened season going into a full season. Nobody knows what to make of that, and adding to that, we have considerations about our young pitchers — some of these guys are unproven and may not perform, their pitch counts may run up early.
“Others may be pitching well but need spells during the year to keep their innings totals down. We’re kind of going into a long, unknown season and putting ourselves in a position to protect our young starters, to not overtax our bullpen and young relievers. It’s going to be all hands on deck.”
Hardly any team is equipped to handle such challenges with major league caliber pitchers. But the Orioles, by nature of where they are in their rebuilding process and the youth of their premier young pitchers, could have it as hard as anyone.
An MLB.com analysis addressing the issue of covering innings noted that FanGraphs’ projections have 40% of the Orioles’ projected innings worked by pitchers with a FIP — or Fielding Independent Pitching, an ERA-like statistic based on factors pitchers can control like walks, strikeouts and home runs — below five. That’s the lowest in the majors, and the next-lowest team is at 70%.
This won’t be the triage of 2019, when the Orioles were forced into bullpen games and wouldn’t let a pitcher get past them on the waiver wire. That year, Hyde simply didn’t have many pitchers he could rely on. This year, he will, and the circumstances might help identify those types of pitchers even more.
Can Tanner Scott, Paul Fry and Shawn Armstrong thrive in a role in which they’re almost exclusively used in winning situations with the game on the line? Will someone like John Means look at the strain put on the staff around him and gut out six-plus innings 25 times to settle things down? Can any of rookies Bruce Zimmermann, Dean Kremer or Keegan Akin have spells where such starts are the expectation?
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Anything in the affirmative on those fronts, and maybe a promising debut from someone like Baumann or Lowther, might put the Orioles’ pitching staff in a far better light six months from now than anyone could imagine.
The nature of the season will make that as challenging as anything these rebuilding Orioles will have faced.
Lose one or two games each week because of the challenge of providing major league caliber pitching for nine innings, and the Orioles might not be faring too differently than the rest of the league. Losing three or four such games each week, however, and the memories of 2019 might obscure any progress the Orioles are making.
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