Shortly after the Orioles walked off the field winners for a second night in a row Thursday, executive vice president Dan Duquette was waiting for manager Buck Showalter in his office to go over what is surely a daunting set of pitching decisions.
They'd just watched Chris Tillman fail to get out of the second inning again, having allowed six runs (five earned) while recording four outs, and need to assemble 27 innings of pitching for Friday night's series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays and Saturday's doubleheader.
Kevin Gausman will start Friday. Alex Cobb will start the second game Saturday. And in between, the Orioles need to dip into their high minors or their bullpen to scrounge up another starter and a few useful arms for long relief.
Should they choose, Saturday's first-game starter could be an audition for Tillman's rotation spot if they've finally had enough of his struggles. Either way, the fact that Showalter was so noncommittal to Tillman's future Thursday and needs a starter from somewhere on his big board of pitchers is an occasion to dig into what the Orioles have as starting depth options in the highest reaches of the organization, what the timeline is for each, and why each might get a call this weekend.
May 10, 2018 -- The Orioles defeat the Royals, 11-6. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)
There might have been a more than just a literal passing of the ball going on when Tillman left in the second inning and Castro came in to relieve him, pitching 4 2/3 shutout innings while allowing four hits and walking two.
Castro's outing removes him from consideration to start Saturday's game, which the Orioles badly wanted him to be available to do, but might open the door for him to slot into the rotation down the road. It would take away a valuable reliever, though, if he's replacing Tillman in the rotation, the likelihood of needing as much long relief as the Orioles have been carrying lessens a bit.
He has lowered his ERA to 3.55 and has held opponents scoreless in six of his past eight appearances. But he also said after this spring's aborted starter conversion that he found his body responded better to a reliever's role after so long in the bullpen. Perhaps now that he's found his in-season form, it might be easier to air it out a bit as a starter. He held his velocity through his five times up Thursday.
Hess' most recent outing was a seven-inning, 10-strikeout gem in a Tuesday morning start at Durham, certainly putting him into consideration for a major league look but eliminating him from being a starting candidate in the process. He got to live the big league life for a day last month as an unused bullpen arm, and Showalter indicated he'd be more in consideration for a short-term bullpen role at this point anyway.
But Hess has done two things that make him stand out, especially in the context of Orioles depth arms. First, he's had success this year, with his 2.12 ERA representing the best start to any season he's had. The second is that he's improved over the years. His secondary pitches have caught up to a fastball that he can keep in the low-to-mid-90s for an entire start, and he's got the durability and pitchability to be worth a look.
He's the type who can get stuck on the Triple-A Norfolk relief carousel if the Orioles see that as his future, so having presented a strong case when they need to look hard at their fifth starter spot isn't the worst thing Hess could have done.
Even though the Orioles brought him up in April as temporary cover in the bullpen, not ultimately using him in a game, the plan for the 23-year-old Harvey is still for him to be left alone in the minors. He only just completed five innings for the first time Wednesday since elbow soreness that kicked off three years of injuries in July 2014, and has a 3.63 ERA in five starts this year.
He still has a big league fastball, but the shape and command of his breaking ball and his changeup will dictate just how that plays at the highest level. Wednesday's start takes him out of consideration for a start Saturday, but if the Orioles want to go against their stated goals of leaving him alone and letting him build his innings at an appropriate level of the minors, he could pitch in relief under the auspices of it being his scheduled work day between starts.
Long term, Harvey would certainly be the Orioles' most enticing starter candidate. He would create a buzz among fans who have long heard his name and only recently begun to believe they'd see it at the major league level. But allowing him to learn at this level as the rest of the team tries to get back on track might be counterproductive for all involved.
Yacabonis hadn't started since high school when the Orioles decided to assign him that role this spring, based on his frame and pitch mix more than the fact that he's a high-effort reliever. He's fared fine in that role for Norfolk, posting a 4.95 ERA and pitching past the fourth inning twice.
His most recent start, in which he allowed four runs on three hits with two walks in 2 1/3 innings, came Monday, so he'd be on full rest and able to contribute whatever the Orioles need Saturday. It would be asking a lot for someone who has started all of six minor league games to start the front half of a doubleheader and eat innings, but if the Orioles send someone else out after the first game and need a reliever for the second game, he's a candidate.
As for starting long term, the goal with him starting is probably closer to what it's done for Tanner Scott — give him an opportunity to develop a nonfastball out pitch — than to be in an actual rotation.
Mike Wright Jr.
He pitched 4 2/3 innings of not particularly pretty ball in Tuesday's blowout loss behind Dylan Bundy, but given how Wright hasn't exactly taken to the bullpen, nor has Showalter taken to trusting him in that role, the fact that he's still around has to say the organization has some kind of plan for him.
Maybe it's starting at some point down the road. He's out of options, so he'll have to prepare for that in a bullpen role, which hasn't worked well of late. If that's not the plan, though, Wright's roster status could hurt him.
Like Hess and Harvey, Ramírez was up without pitching earlier this season, but he's not the known quantity that those two are. Acquired on July 31 from the New York Yankees, Ramírez has a good fastball and gets outs primarily with his changeup, and has had success with that through every level of the minors.
Whether that carries to the big leagues is a question, but after he struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball Thursday, it's not a question that will be answered soon. If the Orioles are looking to see how he translates at the highest level, he's one of a handful of pitchers who can give them starter's innings. They might like Harvey and Hess better long term, but if Ramírez is close to ready for this challenge and they want to protect those other homegrown assets, Ramírez could be the play.
On his way back from a spring oblique injury, the left-handed Lee has pitched just twice and not exceeded 3 1/3 innings in two starts for the Tides. He's allowed six runs on 11 hits with two strikeouts and two walks in 6 1/3 innings, and since his last start was Wednesday, both his lack of innings this year and his lack of rest coming off it likely eliminate him from starting consideration for the near future.
If the Orioles are willing to reach from off their 40-man roster, Akin is the starter with the buzz for that distinction. He has pitched at least five innings and allowed three runs or fewer in each of his past five starts, and the left-hander has a 3.31 ERA with a 1.21 WHIP while holding opponents to a .218 batting average.
Akin turned his season around last year after two months in High-A Frederick with a mechanical tweak to his lower half that unlocked success for him. It would be a quick ascent if Akin was summoned for any role, but also one that would signal that the Orioles are ready to turn to youth in this down season.
By virtue of his 2.86 ERA and the fact that he'll be on full rest Friday, one of the top performers in a big class of minor league free agent pitchers is on the short-term radar at the very least. He most recently allowed a run on five hits in six innings Sunday, and has major league experience with three teams in the past two seasons.
Melville is the type of pitcher the Orioles have turned to at times as bridges between their present-day needs and the homegrown pitchers want to debut in the correct circumstances. He'd have to be added to the 40-man roster, but has minor league options if it comes to that.
Also fitting into the "rested and ready and done it before" category is left-hander Jayson Aquino, who made two starts for the Orioles last season but has a backward arsenal that the team's coaches don't feel suits him for the bullpen.
He was demoted to Bowie this week because of a logjam in Norfolk and responded with seven one-hit innings Monday, so he'd be fully rested for whatever role the Orioles need Saturday. He probably deserved more of an opportunity than he got last year after a pair of good spot starts, but has always fallen on the wrong side of the organizational divides. Perhaps the situation is dire enough to see what he can do in an extended look.