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Orioles reset: Rookie starting pitchers hold promise, even though immediate results are lacking

When the Orioles’ rebuilding project truly began in the summer of 2018, a bubble of pitching prospects was either at or getting to Double-A Bowie via promotion or trade, foretelling a season like this one on the horizon.

For the 13th time in their first 34 games, the Orioles gave the ball to a rookie starting pitcher Sunday — a necessary aspect of this phase of their rebuilding project. It’s not the stakes-free environment it could be with the team playing much more competitive baseball than in 2019.

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But, simply put, the cost for featuring such inexperienced starters is taking what comes with such opportunities: occasional brilliance, occasional disaster and a lot of learning on the job in between.

As such, anyone invested in this rebuild would be wise to follow the advice rookie starter Dean Kremer’s father has given him the past two years.

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Kremer said: “My dad before this season and last season was like, ‘Don’t get too caught up in start-to-start. This is a small blip [in what] could be a long career.’”

After extended rotation stints for Kremer and Keegan Akin in 2020, the expectation was they’d be part of the starter group for 2021. Akin’s unimpressive spring training meant he lost his rotation spot to another rookie lefty, the surging Bruce Zimmermann, on the Opening Day roster.

Akin would have gotten a spot start last month but he got stitches on his pitching thumb after a kitchen accident, and he remains at Triple-A Norfolk. Kremer missed a turn through the rotation on a minor league assignment last month, and Zimmermann did this month, with Zac Lowther taking his start Saturday.

The results have been mixed. Lowther’s seven-run showing in 2 ⅓ innings Saturday was the shortest of the bunch, but Kremer and Zimmermann also had some short outings mixed in so far. Kremer’s last two starts and Zimmermann’s first two were the only two instances when an Orioles rookie starter pitched into the sixth inning.

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In their 13 starts by rookies, the Orioles are 4-9, with those starters pitching to a 6.63 ERA with 50 strikeouts and a 1.68 WHIP in 58 ⅓ innings. Lowther’s start inflated those stats somewhat, but it’s been as up-and-down as expected when it comes to having young pitchers in the rotation the way the Orioles have.

Pitching coach Chris Holt said this week that the work for the pitchers who are in the big leagues and trying to get here is straightforward: “It’s what are you doing well, what do you need to improve, and what’s the plan to go about that work?”

“It’s a lot of new things and a lot of new pressures and things to deal with,” Holt said. “So, being able to try to stay consistent with how we go about our work and also navigate the things that we need to navigate as they occur and the continuing to work to set the bar where we know where they’re capable of pitching.

“There’s no question about what they’re capable of doing, and working to that end is what they’re really about. Staying consistent with that message. These guys can do it. These guys are phenomenal talents. Consistency is the name of the game here. That’s what we’re working for.”

The Orioles don’t really have any choice but to let these rookie pitchers — or at least some rookie pitchers — find that consistency at the major league level. At least two spots in the rotation will go to rookies for the foreseeable future. Jorge López being moved to the bullpen or Matt Harvey eventually being traded could open another spot.

Provided they get healthy and built-up, right-hander Mike Baumann and left-hander Alexander Wells could be next in line for big league debuts. The top pitchers in Double-A Bowie’s rotation in DL Hall, Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith will be on the major league roster by this time next year, and Grayson Rodriguez and the low-minors pitchers aren’t far behind them.

If anyone from this carryover crop of arms accumulated at the end of the Dan Duquette era is going to stick in the Orioles’ rotation as they emerge from this rebuild, now is the time for them to figure out which ones will do that.

Of all the aspects of a rebuild that might be hard to watch on a regular basis in a major league season, this one seems among the most worthwhile.

What’s to come?

After the Orioles finish this wraparound set with the Red Sox on Monday night, they’ll have a quick two-game series in New York against the Mets before facing the Yankees at home next weekend.

It’s likely that Harvey, once a star with the Mets, will start Wednesday’s matinee at Citi Field. He hasn’t pitched there since his last game with the Mets on May 3, 2018 — when he allowed five runs in two relief innings. He was designated for assignment the next day, and the Orioles are his fourth team since.

Harvey has reinvented himself here by introducing a sinker and getting back to a consistent delivery while working with Holt. He said he didn’t have it in his most recent start Friday against Boston, but because all four runs he allowed were unearned, his ERA fell to 3.60.

The Orioles' Austin Hays celebrates after scoring on a double by Ryan Mountcastle against the Red Sox in the eighth inning Sunday.
The Orioles' Austin Hays celebrates after scoring on a double by Ryan Mountcastle against the Red Sox in the eighth inning Sunday. (Kenneth K. Lam)

What was good?

Everyone knows John Means’ no-hitter was better than good, but for the sake of variety, Austin Hays’ week was pretty impressive. He had five hits in the first two games of this Red Sox series before an 0-for-3 on Sunday, but really has been among the team’s best hitters since he returned from a sore hamstring that landed him on the injured list in April. Hays was 2-for-10 with a double before he got hurt, and entered Sunday batting .279 with an .853 OPS and four home runs since.

Him playing left field on a regular basis also provides the Orioles with their best defensive alignment. He can play anywhere, but is above-average at worst in left field. Next to a standout defender like Cedric Mullins, they can sure cover a lot of ground out there.

What wasn’t?

Twenty games into last season, the Orioles’ catching crew of Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco was among the league’s best at the plate, with a 1.052 OPS and the second-best wins above replacement (WAR) as a catcher group in the league.

No such success exists there for the Orioles this year. They entered Sunday with a league-low .506 OPS from the catcher position, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and their fWAR of -0.5 is the lowest for any team’s catchers.

Severino didn’t have the hot start he’s been accustomed to, though he still gets the bulk of the starts behind the plate. Sisco is struggling badly when he does get in games, though he’s throwing base runners out, which is a positive. Still, this group might be due for a shakeup at some point.

On the farm

The first week of the minor league season is finished entering Monday’s universal day off, and there’s plenty worth highlighting.

Among them: led by the 2018 first-round pick Rodriguez, the staff at High-A Aberdeen allowed just six earned runs in the first five games before nearly matching that by allowing six in Sunday’s loss, their first of the season. Rodriguez started twice, including Sunday, striking out 12 while allowing a run on five hits with four walks in 7 ⅓ innings combined.

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Their rotation also features right-handers Kyle Brnovich, Blaine Knight and Garrett Stallings, plus left-hander Drew Rom. That impressive group gave up two runs in the first week of the season.

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Brnovich and Stallings came to the Orioles in trades with the Los Angeles Angels for Dylan Bundy and José Iglesias, respectively, while Knight and Rom were selected in the third and fourth round of the 2018 draft.

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