With plenty of fanfare at the end of last August and into September, the Orioles called up starting pitchers Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann. It was the first arrival of a group of high-minors pitching prospects the club hoped would help turn around the major league team’s fortunes.
With the call-ups came serious expectations. Akin had spent all of 2019 at Triple-A Norfolk, but Kremer and Zimmermann were part of an impressive Double-A Bowie rotation that summer, along with Mike Baumann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther. Together, they became emblematic of the possibilities on the pitching side that a new player development strategy could bring.
A year later, little of that has panned out at the major league level. Injuries, poor performance, and inconsistency mean the best the Orioles can hope for with their young arms is to end the 2021 season similar to how they ended last year: with promise, but plenty of question marks.
“When guys get here, they need to prove they can do it here,” Orioles pitching coach and director of pitching Chris Holt said. “When it comes to the excitement for the guys in the Double-A rotation in ‘19, you have a handful of guys that have some ups and some downs. I think that’s to be expected to a certain extent and realistically the goal is for when it is time for them to be competing for jobs here, they have the skills necessary to be able to compete for jobs and go perform.”
The Orioles knew it might be a volatile year for their young pitchers. Aside from Akin, they all missed a 2020 minor league season because of the coronavirus pandemic that should have included development at Triple-A Norfolk. The general difficulties of getting established in a major league rotation contribute as well, but each of the Orioles’ rookie starters has experienced unique challenges.
In a year of great tumult and transition, the constant has been Triple-A pitching coach Kennie Steenstra, who saw each of the pitchers at their best over the past few minor league seasons at Bowie. The longtime minor league pitching coach for the Orioles said he’s tried to be someone the players can lean on, balancing the knowledge of what they were like at their best with the newfound information on what they need to improve on to get back to the big leagues.
“The guys have learned they’ve got to develop, and they’ve got to get better at some things that they weren’t as particularly solid in as maybe they thought they were,” Steenstra said. “That happens with anybody when they get to the big leagues. You’ve got to finish out some of those things you’ve got to get better at and do them on a consistent basis.”
To that point, the only consistent part about the Orioles’ rookie pitchers is that consistency has eluded them.
Akin, the organization’s No. 10 prospect entering this season according to Baseball America, was ticketed for a rotation spot entering spring training but pitched so poorly he started the year in the minors. He eventually returned and has bounced between roles before settling into the rotation, stringing together some better starts of late.
In March, Akin lost his spot to Zimmermann, then the No. 15 prospect, after the Loyola Blakefield product’s strong spring. Zimmermann, too, was back and forth between the majors and the minors with a mixed bag of results before an arm injury in early June and an ankle sprain last month. He’s racing against the clock to pitch again this season.
Kremer had bright spots in the first few months, but the Orioles grew so frustrated that they declared upon his demotion to Triple-A Norfolk in late June that he’d stay there for a while, and he hasn’t returned to the majors.
Steenstra said Kremer, who led the minors in strikeouts in 2018 when he came to the Orioles in the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was the No. 9 prospect this offseason, has used the time to get some of his personality back. He’s worked to develop under less pressure and “made some really nice strides” in this stint with the Tides.
“Specifically, being able to really nail glove-side fastballs down and away,” Steenstra said. “He’s been real consistent with that as of late, just learning to pitch a little bit more than probably what he was accustomed to. He’d gotten away with just kind of over-talenting some people at Double-A and Triple-A at times and I think he’s realized he’s got to become a little more well-rounded and develop plans to attack hitters where before he just kind of did what he did no matter who was in the box. Those are the things he’s kind of been stressing here.”
Baumann, the organization’s third-best pitching prospect at No. 8 entering the season, felt a return of his elbow injury suffered in 2020 at the alternate training site early in spring training and took a while to get back to being himself. He spent longer than expected building himself back up at Bowie, but has had success at Norfolk.
Holt pointed to Baumann being held back as a particular disappointment given his talent, but said the Orioles “certainly don’t want to rush him just for the sake of getting him caught up,” with the focus on doing what’s right for him and his development.
Steenstra is seeing shades of the pitcher at Norfolk of late who shared the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award in 2019 with Grayson Rodriguez, now the game’s top pitching prospect.
“I know he had some struggles early on in Bowie and [pitching coach Justin Ramsey] did a fantastic job of getting him back, but we’ve just been trying to get him to feel what he did back in ‘19 a little bit, just feeling into his delivery,” Steenstra said of Baumann. “He’s such a strong and athletic guy that it almost works against him sometimes, that he just gets moving too fast. I just try to get back where he was and the way he felt with that same rhythm and tempo and delivery that he had. He’s really made some strides here in the last probably three weeks to really start feeling that way again.”
Lowther (No. 19 prospect) and Wells (No. 20 prospect) have five and six major league appearances, respectively, and haven’t had nearly the same success in the big leagues that they enjoyed in the minors. Wells has been far better of late at Norfolk and joined the Orioles on Wednesday, while Lowther recently returned to the Tides with a shoulder injury.
Steenstra has seen plenty of Wells, a soft-tossing left-handed command artist, at his best. He knows he hasn’t been the same kind of pitcher, and they talk about it often.
“The kind of pitcher that he is, he’s not going to out-stuff people. He can’t afford to be able to be put behind in the count, and when he’s gotten to the big leagues he’s done that on occasion, where he starts picking at the zone a little bit, and as you well know, that’s not the kind of pitcher that he is,” Steenstra said. “The conversations we had here were, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing here, and if you get to the big leagues, you need to continue to do that.’ He may get hit around, but I’d rather see that than walking guys at the big league level because that’s not who he is and that’s not how he pitches.”
Each of these pitchers will go home next month with their own set of directives based on the up-and-down experiences that 2021 brought them. The Orioles’ rebuild would feel much farther along if one or two of them had a few months of sustained major league success to carry into next season, but the opportunity to do more will be there next spring.
“It’s definitely not a red flag,” Steenstra said. “I feel like this is all, guys have progressed the way they’re going to progress and we’re doing everything we can from Chris Holt, myself, Ramsey and everybody below, we’re doing the best we can to develop guys to the best of their abilities and sometimes that means putting them in some situations where they may have some failure.
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“That’s kind of what shows you what guys need to work on and what they need to get better on, and the only way to do that is to challenge guys.”