Hours before Tuesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde announced Keegan Akin as his starter for Wednesday’s series finale. Hours after, he learned he would be turning to another rookie left-hander.
Because Akin and outfielder Anthony Santander were placed on the COVID-19 injured list Wednesday, Alexander Wells drew his first major league start. Baltimore’s No. 20 prospect according to Baseball America, Wells pitched effectively into the sixth inning, leaving with the lead before the Rays rallied to walk off in the ninth.
Through 95 games, a rookie has started for the Orioles 36 times; only five teams have used a rookie starting pitcher more this season, according to FanGraphs. Of the six Baltimore has turned to, all but one ranks among its top 20 prospects, but the results haven’t always matched that status. The group has combined for a 6.55 ERA as starters, but there have been some bright spots among them, with Wells’ starting debut being one.
Here’s how each of the Orioles’ rookie starters has fared this season, ordered by their preseason prospect ranking in the system:
Before being roughed up by the Boston Red Sox in his final start of 2020, Kremer looked more than ready to be a major league pitcher in his September cameo. The Orioles’ No. 9 prospect entering the year, Kremer made Baltimore’s Opening Day rotation, but never found a consistent groove. Only once did he post consecutive starts in which he allowed fewer than four runs.
Kremer has been in Triple-A since late June, following a start in which he recorded only one out while issuing five walks and surrendering a grand slam against the Toronto Blue Jays. The results haven’t been much better with Norfolk; in four starts since the demotion, he has an 8.82 ERA, with seven home runs allowed in 16 ⅓ innings.
Even before landing on the COVID-19 IL — which doesn’t require a player to have tested positive for the coronavirus — Akin was in the midst of a rough season. Like Kremer, Akin performed admirably last fall and entered this spring positioned to earn a rotation spot. But Baltimore’s No. 10 prospect struggled so much with his command that he instead began the year at the alternate training site.
Stitches required after a kitchen incident further delayed his season debut, and after a few outings in Baltimore’s bullpen, he joined the rotation, where he has generally struggled. In his past six starts, Akin has completed five innings only once, issued at least three walks four times and has an ERA of 12.00.
An Ellicott City native and the Orioles’ No. 15 prospect, Zimmermann began spring training as a contender for a relief role and instead pitched his way into the rotation, initially earning the third starting slot behind former All-Stars John Means and Matt Harvey. Despite missing the past month with left biceps tendinitis, Zimmermann’s eight outings of at least five innings still rank second among all Orioles starters behind only Means.
What was perhaps his best performance technically came in relief, as he entered behind an opener and pitched into the seventh while limiting the New York Yankees to two hits. The Orioles could use more outings like that from Zimmermann, whose return to the mound should come sometime next month.
Lowther is the only member of this list who made his major league debut before his Triple-A debut. He was called up from the alternate site in late April before pitching a scoreless inning in relief. In his first start, the Red Sox scored seven runs off him in 2 ⅓ innings.
He’s made three more relief appearances for the Orioles since amid starts for Norfolk, where he has a 6.93 ERA and just landed on the IL with a left shoulder strain. He has never finished a season with an ERA above 2.55 since the Orioles drafted him 74th overall in 2017.
Wells is one spot behind Lowther on the Orioles’ top prospects list, and the two have often been compared throughout their minor league careers as lefties who thrive without premier velocity. Wells showed Wednesday that his repertoire can be successful in the major leagues; of the final 16 batters he faced, five struck out, and only two reached first base safely via something other than an error.
He’s had dazzling command coming up through the system, as evidenced by a 3.9% walk rate in the minor leagues. After two first-innings walks Wednesday, he didn’t allow another.
“He really competed,” Hyde said. “I think the guy competes. He did that in Houston, too. He doesn’t have the fastball that’s going to blow by people or the plus-plus stuff, but he does compete with what he has and did a nice job commanding the baseball after the second inning.”
Watkins is not only the lone member of this list who wasn’t among the Orioles’ top prospects, but he’s also the only one born before 1995. At 28, Watkins finally reached the majors as the Orioles churned through the bottom spots of their 40-man roster to add pitchers for innings coverage, and Watkins, deservingly, is the only one who’s stuck.
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After a scoreless relief debut, Watkins has allowed no more than one earned run in his first three career starts, joining Kremer as the only Orioles to do so. A former 30th-round pick by the Detroit Tigers, Watkins has gotten an opportunity and taken advantage of it, posting a 1.65 ERA in 16 ⅓ innings with Baltimore. Saturday, he’ll face the Washington Nationals opposite All-Star Max Scherzer.