Before he sent right-hander Tom Eshelman out to the mound to start Sunday’s matinee against the Tampa Bay Rays — the fifth game someone who didn’t begin the year with the organization started for the Orioles this month — manager Brandon Hyde said there’s not a lot of prep work that can be done on the constant cycle of pitchers he’s handing the ball to during the team’s recent rotation makeover.
All he can do is watch some video, check the scouting reports and hope it goes well. And with Andrew Cashner now property of the Boston Red Sox and Dylan Bundy out for what the club believes will be just 10 days with knee tendinitis, the Orioles will be doing that particular brand of hoping pretty often over the last 69 games of the season.
With such little success with bullpen games and no rush to add starting pitching prospects to the roster, the candidates are basically going to be the kind of Triple-A depth pieces that filled the lineup for most of the year.
Here's a breakdown of who could be getting the bulk of the Orioles' starts going forward, and what they have to offer.
There’s not a lot of flash to Brooks, but he’s got experience starting and seems to be the type who can give the Orioles something relatively reliable should he get stretched out fully to starter length. His first appearance, with 2 2/3 shutout innings Saturday, was a good first step.
Brooks was a starter for the first month of the season with the Oakland Athletics and was largely unspectacular, though the 5.74 ERA he had in six starts before he lost his rotation spot wouldn’t have earned him the same fate in Baltimore.
Eshelman isn’t going to overpower anyone, but he’s shown the formula for success in his two starts for the Orioles: living around the edges and avoiding the middle of the plate. He gave up a couple of crippling home runs Sunday when he didn’t do so.
Eshelman has shown he’s in control and is going to keep the Orioles engaged in games. It might not be a traditional profile, but it’s one that executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias felt strongly enough to draft with the Houston Astros, then go out and get in a trade last month, and the Orioles have been impressed with what they’ve seen so far.
Wojciechowski couldn’t crack the Orioles’ rotation last year and opted out of his minor league contract midseason, but is getting the chance now. Like Brooks and Eshelman before him, Wojciechowski really hasn’t done anything to indicate he doesn’t deserve a chance to at least keep going.
Considering Ynoa has already been relegated to a long-relief role (after earning a starting chance with a strong set of bullpen performances) and hasn’t earned any of the three spot starts the Orioles need in their first five games out of the All-Star break, it’s clear that he is on the tier below the aformentioned three.
Out of anyone in this group, though, he has probably pitched well most often. The problem is when he doesn't pitch well, he's pretty bad at limiting the damage. It's kind of a bullpen profile at this point, with the possibility to go multiple innings when the Orioles need it.
Shepherd was a reliever in the Red Sox system until last year at Triple-A Pawtucket and joined the Orioles as a waiver claim in late-May. He’s been uneven in his time with the Tides, but his 6.14 ERA since joining Norfolk is inflated by a few outings. His first appearance there was out of the bullpen and he allowed three runs while recording two outs, which didn’t help things.
After that, he went on a nice run before allowing three homers in a seven-run start Friday. Shepherd might not be a finished product, but he’s on the roster, and that means he could start in a pinch.
Straily was historically bad for the Orioles when he was in the majors, but has had much more success at Norfolk. He had two scoreless starts in his first two before allowing four runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings Thursday. It's possible he can get another shot, especially if the Orioles don't want to rush anyone younger who isn't ready.
Ortiz was rushed up to the majors twice and did nothing with those chances, and hasn’t been much better at Norfolk. He pitched well in his last start before going on the injured list earlier this month, but will likely need to pitch much better — or in an Orioles emergency — for a return this year.
Herb came back for well-liked outfielder Mike Yastrzemski from the San Francisco Giants and is the type of Triple-A depth that seems to be getting chances in these parts lately. He’s struggled to keep the ball in the park for the Tides, but struck out 10 in five innings of one-run ball Saturday in his last start against Durham.
The Orioles hold Akin in high regard, but considering there’s been no impetus to add him to the roster earlier than they have to, he’s been toiling in Norfolk with a 4.44 ERA. He could be added in September for a cameo, but it’s unclear this front office will operate the same way the old one did.
Considering the Orioles’ rotation is basically in shambles, this week features two well-earned days off around a two-game set with the Washington Nationals. That continues a second-half stretch that began with the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend that has the Orioles playing teams with playoff aspirations in their first 18 games of the second half.
After a brief interlude with the Toronto Blue Jays in early August, they face the New York Yankees, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox for their next 13 games.
Rebuilding is hard, and it's even harder when every opponent is trying to pad its win total when they see you on the schedule.
What was good?
With all due respect to Cashner, who has been featured in this space in some form two weeks running for his improved performance on the mound, trading Cashner to the Red Sox was very good.
The idea that the Orioles wouldn't trade him because they need to have someone to keep them in games and start every five days for the rest of the season was laughable on its surface. Nothing this team has done intentionally this season has been decided with that goal in mind. They'll figure it out, or they won't, but if not, what does it matter?
The return for Cashner doesn’t really matter, either. It was a money play just as much as a prospect play, and the Orioles now have two 17-year-old, up-the-middle talents that they didn’t have before, and one less veteran pitcher whose brand of leadership in the clubhouse certainly wasn’t for everyone.
(A bonus leftover thought on the trade)
Without getting too much into the return, it seems some of the reaction to it is clouded by the fact that the Orioles have always had to give up substantial pieces with minor league pedigrees who have gone on to have success (Eduardo Rodriguez, Zack Davies, etc.) for their rentals.
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That’s because the Orioles didn’t have the teenage lottery tickets that teams wanted to target the way the Red Sox did, and that’s why the team joining the international amateur market is important. Such young players who teams can project out are not only valuable to their own farm systems, but make trading for major league talent easier. Losing those kinds of prospects can be easier to stomach, and teams sign so many Latin American players so that they can be comfortable making those moves.
When you don’t have them, you trade away legitimate pieces for rentals. And when you’re years away from contending, a couple of toolsy lottery tickets is a fine return.
Dwight Smith Jr. was one of the feel-good stories of the beginning of the Orioles' season, but his success batting second in the lineup feels a long time ago given what has happened since.
His OPS was last over .800 on May 17, and thanks to an 0-for-26 stretch dating to June 30, and a power drought in which he hit his 11th home run of the season June 4 but none since, Smith is batting .233 with a .702 OPS. He has a minor league option, and if someone like Austin Hays or DJ Stewart pushes the matter and shows he deserves a spot here, it might be Smith who makes way to try and find his form in the minors.
On the farm
Third baseman Jomar Reyes, a one-time top-10 prospect with loud power but plenty to iron out in the minors, is in his fourth season at High-A Frederick and might finally be hitting well enough to move up.
Reyes had a good April but entered July batting .243, and has gone 22-for-47 (.468) with four doubles and two home runs since the month began, raising his average to .277. Reyes, who is still just 22, has fallen quite a bit from his lofty heights within the organization over the past few years. His resurgence, however, could put him at Double-A on a track that could be considered right on schedule.