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The Orioles nearly tied a franchise record by using 18 starting pitchers in 2019. Who might start in 2020?

Orioles pitcher Asher Wojciechowski throws against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Baltimore.
Orioles pitcher Asher Wojciechowski throws against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Baltimore. (Gail Burton/AP)

Sunday’s addition of former first-round draft pick Kohl Stewart — the Orioles’ first major league free agent signing this offseason — brings another potential starter into Baltimore’s 2020 plans.

The 2019 Orioles nearly tied a franchise record by having 18 pitchers start a game, coming one short of the mark set in 1955, the club’s second year in Baltimore. Half of that group is no longer in the organization, but enough options exist that the Orioles could approach a score of starters for the second straight season. With respect to Richard Bleier, one of several pitchers who Baltimore unpredictably used last year as openers or as the first in a line of relievers in a bullpen game, here’s a look at who could possibly start for the Orioles at some point in 2020 among players currently in the organization.

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Seemingly locks

John Means: A year after entering spring training out to simply make the roster, Means’ biggest question mark this spring will be whether he’s the Opening Day starter. The left-hander broke camp with the team, quickly pitched his way into Baltimore’s rotation and ended up as the Orioles’ All-Star representative thanks to a 2.50 first-half ERA. If Means is healthy, he’ll be in the rotation.

Alex Cobb: Cobb was lined up to start Opening Day in 2019 before the first of what became a series of injuries that derailed his second season in Baltimore. After posting a 10.95 ERA across three starts, Cobb eventually underwent season-ending hip surgery. Cobb had a career 3.50 ERA with the Tampa Bay Rays before his struggles in two years with the Orioles.

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Asher Wojciechowski: Although Wojciechowski’s rotation spot is less secure than those of Means and Cobb, he would likely have to pitch himself out of the role in spring training. He struck out nearly a batter an inning while posting a 4.92 ERA after a midseason trade to the Orioles and provided perhaps the club’s best start of the year, striking out 10 Boston Red Sox across 7⅓ one-hit innings in July.

Potential returners

David Hess: Although every pitcher in this group made at least one start for the Orioles last year, Hess is the only one who remains on the 40-man roster. He pitched 6⅓ no-hit innings against the Toronto Blue Jays in his first start, then posted a 7.92 ERA in his final 13 starts. His 28 home runs allowed were the most ever by a pitcher who threw 80 or fewer innings in a season.

Chandler Shepherd: After bouncing from the Red Sox to the Chicago Cubs to the Orioles, Shepherd spent most of the year with Triple-A Norfolk. He was the International League Player of the Month for August, a month in which he made his major league debut and pitched to a 1.62 ERA with the Tides. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster the day after Baltimore’s season ended.

Ty Blach: Blach’s 11.32 ERA with Baltimore was the franchise’s second worst for any pitcher who made at least five starts for the club. The left-hander was designated for assignment in September but remains in the organization.

Tom Eshelman: Manager Brandon Hyde compared Eshelman’s low-velocity, command-based style to former MLB ERA title winner Kyle Hendricks, though Eshelman’s first taste of the majors was not as successful. He had a 6.50 ERA in 10 appearances (four starts) with Baltimore and was outrighted off the 40-man roster in October.

Luis Ortiz: Ortiz, a former first-round pick acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018’s Jonathan Schoop trade, made one start with the Orioles in 2019, before which Hyde said he had “no idea what to expect.” Ortiz lasted 3⅓ innings, giving up four runs and two homers. His only outing after early July was an inning in the Gulf Coast League in August.

Newcomers

Kohl Stewart: Stewart was the Minnesota Twins’ fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, the same spot the Orioles drafted Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman the two previous years. Unlike those two, Stewart has yet to get much of an extended stay in the majors. In 17 games (six starts) for the Twins over the past two seasons, Stewart had a 4.79 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 62 innings.

Brandon Bailey: The Orioles selected Bailey with the second overall pick of the Rule 5 draft, meaning he’ll have to remain on the major league roster for the full season or be returned to the Houston Astros should he clear waivers. Bailey had a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts for Houston’s Double-A affiliate in 2019.

Michael Rucker: Like Bailey, Rucker is a Rule 5 draftee. However, he made only one start in the Chicago Cubs’ system in 2019 after making all 26 appearances as a starter the year before. Rucker averaged more than two innings per relief appearance, so he could prove more likely to serve as a long reliever.

Keegan Akin: Akin spent all of 2019 with Norfolk refining his pitch mix. Although the results weren’t ideal — a 4.73 ERA and the second most walks in the International League — he did lead the IL in strikeouts. Added to the 40-man roster this offseason, the left-hander will have the chance to earn a rotation spot in spring training.

Dean Kremer: Although it’s unlikely Kremer breaks camp with Baltimore, the fact he already holds a 40-man spot puts him in a different tier than the group below. One of the prospects acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, Kremer led all of the minors in strikeouts in 2018 before missing the start of 2019 with an oblique injury. In his final 10 starts with Double-A Bowie, Kremer went 8-0 with a 1.93 ERA before struggling in four starts with Norfolk.

Prospect possibilities

Mike Baumann: Baumann shared the organization’s minor league pitching honor with 2018 first-round pick Grayson Rodriguez after putting up a 2.98 ERA between Bowie and High-A Frederick. In only his third Double-A start, the former third-round pick pitched a no-hitter.

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Zac Lowther: In three seasons across four minor league levels, the left-handed Lowther has a 2.26 ERA, striking out 380 batters in 326 innings. He shared Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors with Akin in 2018 then followed with a 2.55 ERA in 26 starts for Bowie.

Alex Wells: Despite an arsenal that won’t blow anyone away, the crafty lefty has found success at every level. The 2017 Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Wells continued to thrive last year in Bowie, posting a 1.83 ERA in his first 16 starts before some late struggles brought it to 2.95 at season’s end, then went out and allowed one run in 15⅔ innings in the Arizona Fall League.

Bruce Zimmermann: Zimmermann, a Woodstock native who was a product of the Orioles’ 2018 trade of Gausman and Darren O’Day to the Atlanta Braves, struggled with Bowie upon his arrival to the organization last year. But a 2.58 ERA in Double-A in 2019 earned him a promotion to Norfolk, where he figures to open 2020 in a rotation that could also include Kremer, Lowther, Wells and possibly Baumann.

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