WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — As Brandon Hyde nears the halfway point of spring training, the second-year Orioles manager can boast about something he rarely had in 2019: rotation options.
There are still three or four more outings for each starting pitcher to stretch out, and every time they step off a mound in the bullpen, it comes with some risk.
But between the team’s veteran minor league free-agent additions, some Rule 5 newcomers and a group of homegrown arms that are nearing the majors, the Orioles’ focus will soon shift to sifting through the candidates — with plenty of criteria to choose from.
“I like how some guys have thrown,” Hyde said. “I like how [Bruce] Zimmermann threw yesterday, [Wade] LeBlanc and [Tommy] Milone both had some good outings early. I think we’ve been pitching pretty well. We had that one really bad split-squad day ... and we were a little shaky strikes-wise in the first handful of games, but we’ve been better at that also. I think that there’s some nice competition going for the rotation spots.”
Including simulated games for some who haven’t pitched in Grapefruit League play, 14 Orioles pitchers who are still in camp have either pitched multiple innings multiple times or planned to. Alex Cobb was supposed to pitch two innings in his spring debut Feb. 24, but cut his outing short because of illness. Left-handers LeBlanc and Milone, plus non-roster right-hander Chandler Shepherd, have had multi-inning simulated games since last pitching in an exhibition game.
It’s a tough task to be stretching out over a dozen pitchers at this stage in camp — and right-hander Kohl Stewart would be the 15th were he not held back because of forearm soreness.
It’s a lot of arms, and not all of them can legitimately be seen as major league options for Opening Day. But at this stage in spring, it’s at least clear which pools each pitcher belongs in.
Major league pedigrees
Cobb was supposed to be the Orioles’ Opening Day starter in 2019 but missed all but a few starts because of a hip injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. He’s done most of his work on the back fields since his debut, and will once again pitch a planned simulated game Friday instead of facing the New York Yankees on the road to avoid facing an opponent he’ll see early in the regular season.
The Orioles’ reigning All-Star got rave reviews from Hyde for his previous outing March 1, pitching three perfect innings with two strikeouts against a first-rate Philadelphia Phillies lineup to make up for some tough luck his first time out. Means isn’t fighting to make the team, but doesn’t seem to be taking anything for granted.
Wojciechowski took a step toward winning an Opening Day roster spot with the Orioles that, if not promised, was certainly always earmarked for him. He was a rotation mainstay in the second half of last season, and while his efforts to add a split-fingered fastball have been tenuous this spring, his fastball/slider combination proved plenty effective as long as he’s still got those pitches going. So far, he does.
LeBlanc gets some live game action Wednesday against the Miami Marlins, but has felt good about where he is in his spring progression since his first start Feb. 23 and seems to be preparing as if he knows he’ll make the roster. As a nonroster invitee, the Orioles would need to add him to the 40-man roster if they do, but that’s something to deal with when the time comes.
Like LeBlanc, Milone has looked like a veteran just going about his business and getting hitters out early in spring. He was scheduled to start Tuesday, but the team decided to accommodate some trapezius soreness by keeping him in Sarasota to pitch a simulated game instead. He’d also have to be added to the roster if the Orioles want to bring him north, and that was likely presented as a serious option when he decided to sign here early in camp.
On the fringes
Biceps soreness has kept the Orioles’ only major league free-agent pitcher signing of the offseason out of Grapefruit League action and could delay whether he’s ready for the season. He has minor league options either way, so if the Orioles want to keep the veterans and further indoctrinate Stewart into their pitching program either on a rehabilitation assignment or on a traditional minor league assignment, they can.
One of the wrinkles of the Orioles possibly keeping both minor league free-agent candidates is the stipulations attached to their Rule 5 picks, including Bailey. He’s pitched two two-inning stints, allowing a run on three hits Feb. 23 but working around a pair of walks for two scoreless innings Feb. 28. Bailey has a four-pitch starter’s mix and could fit into long relief if the Orioles want to keep him but not start him. Bailey having to be on the active roster for the entire season complicates that.
The same goes for Rucker, the Orioles’ second Rule 5 draft pick who they’re at least stretching out to see if the improvements he showed in relief in 2019 can be carried over into longer outings. In Tuesday’s two-inning stint against the Washington Nationals, he struck out two in his third straight scoreless spring appearance.
Before the Orioles added the veteran left-handers and Rule 5 right-handers, Akin’s addition to the 40-man roster this offseason put him in position to possibly make the team out of spring training after spending all of 2019 at Triple-A Norfolk. He’s gone two innings in each of his outings, and allowed four runs on six hits with three strikeouts against no walks. There might simply end up being other options ahead of him, but Akin will likely pop up in Baltimore this summer.
Hess started 14 games in 2019 for the Orioles before moving to the bullpen. He worked on plenty in the offseason and seems to be carrying a little more fastball this year, though the Orioles are still undecided on his role. Hyde said they’d decide after three or four outings whether he was being groomed for a long-relief or starting role.
Preparing as depth
Kremer got saddled with an unlucky loss in his spring debut, but has impressed Hyde with his competitiveness and the stuff he’s been carrying so far in spring. Like Akin, he was added to the 40-man roster in the fall. But unlike Akin, Kremer only made four starts for Norfolk last year. However great the impression he makes is, the Orioles will likely call for him to get more seasoning before his big league debut.
If there’s a candidate for this year’s Means in the sense of an off-the-radar breakout candidate, it might be the left-hander from Ellicott City. He’s seen a bump in velocity so far this spring and has shown a swing-and-miss slider that’s harder than last year. The difference is that Zimmermann doesn’t have the Triple-A time on his resume, and isn’t already on the roster, so it will be difficult to break camp in such a spot. He’ll be starting in Norfolk, and could be quickly summoned to Baltimore if a starter is needed.
Eshelman’s major league debut last summer was long-awaited after he toiled for years in the Phillies’ farm system. After having a tough first taste of the majors, he was outrighted off the roster and resolved to improve his secondary pitches to sharpen his arsenal around his soft fastball. He’s done that with five impressive innings over two appearances in camp so far, and is clearly being stretched out to provide starting depth in the minors.
Blach started Tuesday in place of Milone and became the first Orioles pitcher with three multi-inning stints on his spring resume. Had it been a third straight two-inning outing Tuesday against the Nationals, he’d have left unscathed. Instead, he allowed five runs in a sloppy third inning by the Orioles, with some hard contact mixed in.
Shepherd started the first game Feb. 22, but has been relegated to simulated game duty since. The Orioles liked him as a starter after claiming him off waivers last summer, and continue to. It might be hard to create starter-length innings for everyone at Norfolk, but he’ll likely join Eshelman and Blach as known commodities waiting in the rotation reserve if the Orioles need to add someone to the roster.
Wednesday, 1:05 p.m.