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The Orioles have an unlikely development and evaluation tool for young players: competitive September baseball

Austin Hays wasn’t in the Orioles' plans for a late-season call-up last September. The team initially left him in the minors when rosters expanded because they thought he could benefit more from six weeks of continuous at-bats in the Arizona Fall League instead of in the big leagues.

Once the rules changed and players who ended the season in the majors were allowed to also play in Arizona, the Orioles changed course and brought Hays up for what was a meaningful and successful run as the team’s everyday center fielder.

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Not much is going to change the Orioles' plans for a player’s development or a prospect’s path to the big leagues, but an unexpected developmental benefit might qualify.

That’s what the Orioles have in this unique September. Instead of expanded rosters and most of the league just coasting to the end of the season, they have games against playoff aspirants who are challenging them every night.

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“The September games we’re playing are more like regular season games, and we’re playing teams that are vying to get into the postseason,” manager Brandon Hyde said. "September is different because of the amount of bullpen guys that teams have as well as some teams are out of it or traded a lot of their players away and they want to see what they have for the future. This year, it doesn’t seem that way.

“The teams we’re playing almost night-in and night-out are teams that are trying to get ready to win a division title or trying to get into the playoffs. Atlanta, Yankees, Tampa starting tomorrow. These are really, really good ball clubs.”

That rookies such as Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, and Ryan Mountcastle have all succeeded in those circumstances is the type of meaningful progress the Orioles will be looking for as they continue to try to be competitive.

So, where the team can, they should be trying to get major league looks for as many of their young players as possible. That would mean changing plans and adding a prospect to the 40-man roster before it’s necessary, something they refused to do with Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin last year.

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One of the top candidates for such a promotion, left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, could be the beneficiary of the developmental tool that competitive September baseball has unexpectedly provided.

When asked before the game if there would be any more major league debuts this season, Hyde was unusually short when he said, “I think it’s possible.”

Combined with his postgame revelation that the starter of one of those doubleheaders would likely come from the Bowie site, it’s fair to reason that Zimmermann, an Ellicott City native, is the best option for that.

Zimmermann getting a look in this environment threads the needle of present-day success and long-term promise. Adding a top prospect such as Grayson Rodriguez or DL Hall now would hurt the organization long-term. Bringing back a swingman who has been up and down already this season doesn’t help anyone.

But giving someone such as Zimmermann — who, like recent debutante Dean Kremer, has scant Triple-A experience but would have been in line for a debut this summer anyway — a chance to pitch against a difficult major league lineup or two can only help his development.

A similar situation, albeit under vastly different circumstances, meant the Orioles had to add left-hander John Means to the roster late in the 2018 season. The resulting experience guided his offseason, and what he learned after just one major league outing made him an All-Star.

And though it likely doesn’t rate high on the priority list, the bump the Orioles are getting in the eyes of outside observers for their rookies contributing the way they have can only help the franchise going forward. Kremer and Akin have pitched well against tough lineups for the past month. Mountcastle has been the Orioles' most productive hitter since his call-up and is already a consistent middle-of-the-order bat.

Kremer and Akin, especially, have shown there’s only so much to be gained for a pitcher of that experience level at the Bowie site before it’s worth seeing what they look like in the big leagues. The purpose of that site, for all its player development qualities, is to service the major league team’s depth needs.

The Orioles need a starter Thursday. Their best option might also benefit more from making that start than staying in Bowie much longer, and that’s not a circumstance anyone could have predicted when mapping out development two months ago.

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