Orioles pitchers and catchers will report to Sarasota, Florida, next week, marking the official start to spring training after a tumultuous offseason.
At times, the drama of the team’s ownership situation, expiring lease and measured offseason approach has overshadowed the first season in half a decade the Orioles begin the year with a playoff berth seen as a legitimate possibility. A mix of a core that has weathered the organization’s rebuild, a wave of young talent that’s the product of it and veteran additions have the club believing it can reach the postseason after unexpectedly being the best American League team to fall short in 2022.
On the verge of the Orioles’ first post-rebuild season, The Baltimore Sun is breaking down the roster position by position, examining the biggest questions at each spot and who could help carry the team back to the postseason, in 2023 and beyond.
First up: a rotation featuring a bevy of legitimate candidates, offering Baltimore a mix of floor and upside it has often lacked in recent years.
Opening day candidates
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last week that the Orioles’ 40-man roster features 12 pitchers who could break camp in Baltimore’s rotation.
The only locks entering spring training are the club’s two offseason additions. Right-hander Kyle Gibson, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal in December to become the highest-priced free agent of Elias’ tenure, and left-hander Cole Irvin, acquired in a trade from the Oakland Athletics alongside a minor league pitcher for infield prospect Darell Hernaiz, are two of only 15 pitchers who threw at least 346 innings with 30 or more quality starts over the previous two seasons, providing a solid foundation even if neither is a true No. 1 starter.
All but one pitcher who made at least four starts with Baltimore last year is back: Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer, Tyler Wells, Austin Voth, Spenser Watkins, Bruce Zimmermann and Mike Baumann. None threw more than 130 major league innings in 2022, prompting Elias to say nothing is assured for even those who had the most success. Bradish and Kremer presumably have an inside edge, but the group offers significant depth.
The final candidates are three of the organization’s top pitching prospects in right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and left-handers DL Hall and Drew Rom. Only Hall has already reached the majors, but Elias has said multiple times he hopes to see Rodriguez, regarded as one of the minor leagues’ best arms overall, make the opening-day roster.
Do DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez make the rotation out of camp?
The Orioles’ first-round picks in 2017 and 2018, respectively, have long been viewed as the organization’s top two pitching prospects, and this is the first spring training either will have an actual shot to make the team.
Rodriguez, 23, would have joined Hall in making his debut last year if not for a right lat muscle strain. Elias has been far more direct about Rodriguez’s chances of making the roster than he ever was last year about those of catcher Adley Rutschman, though that possibility was rendered moot by a right tricep strain on the cusp of spring training. Rodriguez’s situation, then, might show how the Orioles are approaching rules in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement about service time; if he’s on their opening-day roster, he could net the team an extra draft pick by winning Rookie of the Year, but sending him back to Triple-A for a couple of weeks would allow them to keep him under team control for an extra season, assuming he doesn’t finish in the top two for the award despite that.
Hall, 24, made his major league debut as a starter in August, saying this weekend he “learned more in that [3 2/3] innings than I did probably in the last couple years.” He then returned to the minors to convert to a relief role, both for innings management and to add his dynamic stuff to the Orioles’ bullpen down the stretch. Dominant in his final eight outings, Hall will head to camp with his eye on a major league rotation spot, though Elias said the team hasn’t decided whether he would otherwise be a starter in Triple-A or return to Baltimore’s bullpen.
“I think I can be a big league starter,” Hall said, adding, “I’m comfortable with whatever. Anytime I can go out there and toe the rubber, I don’t care where it’s at, who it’s for, what role it’s in. I’m just gonna go out there and do my best.”
The Orioles’ opening day starter the past two seasons, left-hander John Means isn’t among their dozen rotation candidates as he continues his recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. He’s throwing fastballs from 140 feet and will begin throwing off a slope early in spring training. He said he’s worked during the process to address the shoulder issues that have flared up throughout his major league career while also trying to find a blend between his 2020 and 2021 velocities.
“They always say it’s more of a mental grind than a physical grind, and it’s definitely true,” Means said. “It’s kind of let me step back a little bit, take care of the mental part and also take care of my body, taking care of some of the things I need to work on. It’s honestly been really helpful, and I feel really good.”
Elias offered July as a potential return point for Means, providing the possibility of a significant midseason boost to Baltimore’s rotation. During the Orioles’ rebuild, he was often the only member of their rotation who had success, and his returning to a group that could feature four other quality pitchers is certainly tantalizing.
“I can’t wait,” Means said. “This team is so good, and the vibe is so good. I just can’t wait to get back and try to do my part.”
Rodriguez, Hall, Bradish and Kremer are all 27 or younger and have at least four years of team control left, meaning they could theoretically make up the core of the Orioles’ rotation for years to come, especially if any develops into a true ace. But there are other arms rising up the system behind them.
At the 2022 trade deadline, the Orioles netted three potential future starters, getting left-hander Cade Povich from Minnesota, right-hander Seth Johnson from Tampa Bay and right-hander Chayce McDermott from Houston. With Rodriguez and Hall set to graduate, Povich is lined up to be Baltimore’s next top pitching prospect, with ESPN already ranking him in front of Hall and as the 54th-best prospect in the sport. The Orioles added Johnson to their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but he will miss most of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery, while McDermott will try to improve after struggling at Double-A Bowie to end the year.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Under Elias, the Orioles have spent few high draft picks on pitching, with the fifth round the earliest they have drafted and signed a pitcher. Neither of the two they’ve taken there, Carter Baumler and Carlos Tavera, have gotten out of A-ball after dealing with injuries in 2022.
Two of the Orioles’ top minor league performers last season had been undrafted free agents. After going unselected in the sport’s final 40-round draft in 2019, Noah Denoyer signed with Baltimore and has since pitched his way onto the team’s 40-man roster; he worked largely in bulk relief, but among the system’s pitchers, only Hall and Rodriguez struck out a greater percentage of opposing batters. Ryan Watson wasn’t taken in 2020′s shortened draft, but he thrived in Bowie’s rotation to earn a promotion to Triple-A and the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year honors.
Pitchers and catchers report: Feb. 15
First full-squad workout: Feb. 21
Grapefruit League opener: Feb. 25 vs. Twins