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Six fresh faces to know as the Orioles’ pitchers and catchers report to camp

SARASOTA, FLORIDA — Tuesday’s report day for Orioles pitchers and catchers, many of whom have been in Sarasota working for a while, represents an official chance to reset for the dozens of players who want to leave their contributions to the game’s worst pitching staff in 2019 behind them.

It’s also an opportunity for those who weren’t a part of last season’s 108-loss campaign to show how they might help the team improve.

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Thirty-eight players — including four position players — pitched for the Orioles in 2019, and only 17 are back in camp this year. Of them, just 13 are still on the 40-man roster. So with 35 total pitchers in camp, that means there are more players who didn’t pitch for the Orioles last year than did.

Some were in the organization and are now ready to start competing for a major league job. Others were brought in to compete for roster spots as free agents or Rule 5 draft picks.

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Here are six of those newcomers who will attempt to contribute to the 2020 Orioles pitching staff.

Wade LeBlanc

While he didn’t get a major league contract from the Orioles, all a veteran pitcher like LeBlanc can ask for is a chance to win a rotation spot, and he has that opportunity in camp. He’s coming off a 2019 season that was far worse than the years that preceded it, with a 5.71 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP as a swingman for the Seattle Mariners.

Still, there’s not a ton keeping a healthy LeBlanc out of the Orioles rotation, if not the Opening Day rotation. LeBlanc doesn’t overpower anyone from the left side with his fastball, but his presence in camp will probably be good for the trio of left-handed prospects the Orioles invited to camp in Alex Wells, Zac Lowther and Bruce Zimmermann. While Zimmermann and fellow left-hander Keegan Akin have a bit more life in their fastballs, LeBlanc has shown he can get it done in the majors without blowing batters away.

That could be a tremendous resource for those young pitchers, but the Orioles will surely hope his mentorship is merely a bonus to some strong outings once the season starts.

Brandon Bailey

Rule 5 picks like Bailey and fellow right-hander Michael Rucker are always the talk of camp, because they’re new, they come with unique roster restrictions that make their cases complicated and they’re typically playing at areas of need.

Bailey checks all of those boxes, and as a former Astros farmhand in an organization led by former Houston executives, it’s fair to say that the Orioles know and like what they have in him. The Orioles touted Bailey’s ability to mix and use all of his pitches in any count, and that will be challenged in big league camp. Rule 5 players typically come in on a mission, and if Bailey (or Rucker) succeeds on the starting pitching-starved Orioles, that will certainly draw attention.

Kohl Stewart

It’s hard to say Stewart’s a reclamation project, but for a player who was the fourth overall draft pick out of high school in 2013 and never really pitched to that potential with the Minnesota Twins, he’s certainly the type of player the Orioles hope can rebuild his value here.

According to MLB’s StatCast data on BaseballSavant.com, Stewart works primarily on a two-seam fastball that finds more barrels than it should, but he has the makings of some interesting secondary pitches. There haven’t been many major league transformations made by the new administration as far as pitchers are concerned, but Stewart could certainly become their first success story on that front.

Keegan Akin

Ever since Akin was selected in a pitching-heavy 2016 Orioles draft, he has been a prospect that box-score watchers have often touted as a future rotation piece. With every step he takes toward the majors, including this fall’s addition to the 40-man roster, he gets closer to the chance to become that.

As the Orioles wait for some of their younger pitching at the lower levels of the minors to come through, pitchers like Akin have a chance to get a head start and solidify themselves in the major league rotation. It might not happen immediately, as the Orioles could use his high walk rate in his full season at Triple-A as justification to start him in the minors. But Akin will get a long look as a rotation candidate in spring training.

Dean Kremer

In terms of legitimate prospects, it was a short list that was invited to the first spring training of this front office last year. One of them — Kremer, who led the minors in strikeouts with 2018 — never got a chance to make an impression when he came to camp with an oblique injury in 2019.

Once healthy, he showed his success before and after being acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers for star infielder Manny Machado was legitimate. He’s got a sneaky fastball, a reliable curveball and spent time working on his slider and changeup in the Arizona Fall League. Kremer didn’t get a chance to set himself up with much momentum last spring. This time around, he can create some serious buzz for a mid-summer debut if he pitches well in camp.

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Cole Sulser

Rare is the Orioles offseason waiver claim who actually makes it through the offseason, and while Sulser hasn’t done so quite yet, it’s clear why he could be the one who stays. He has plenty of Triple-A success under his belt, improved in 2019 (once he got to the Tamp Bay Rays organization that uses data and technology in a similar way that the Orioles do now) and didn’t allow a run in nine September appearances last year before being put on waivers at the end of the regular season.

It’s been an offseason full of roster churn for the Orioles, and the last year-plus has shown that not everyone who they place on waivers is gone for good. Hanser Alberto came back and competed for a batting title after being lost on waivers last spring, and Austin Brice had a very good 2019 for the Miami Marlins after the Orioles cut him loose.

Sulser is one of several new relievers in camp who, by virtue of not having the baggage of many of the returners, could become a spring training standout.

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