Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles' first wave of young starting pitchers has arrived. Few things matter more to their rebuild.

When the Orioles reconvene next February for another season, one of the most pressing questions any club faces at that time — who will be in the starting rotation? — won’t be anywhere near as frightening as it has recently been.

With Bruce Zimmermann making his first big league start Thursday night to join fellow rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin on the major league staff, the Orioles are getting a look at a group of pitchers who could help stabilize their rotation and provide the kind of foundation they’ll need to start competing at the highest level.


“I thought that it was definitely a possibility going in that we would have some young guys here the second half of this season, or at least toward the end of the year," manager Brandon Hyde said. "And that’s how it has worked out, and we’re excited to really give these guys an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues right now and evaluate them. Kremer and Akin, so far, have really been impressive. Hopefully, Zimm does the same thing.”

Having a three-game span of starts by Akin, Kremer, and Zimmermann, who this offseason ranked Nos. 9, 11, and 16, respectively, in the Orioles' top-30 prospect rankings at Baseball America, was only a possibility because of how the season started.


Having been through a 2019 season in which the rotation was miserable — and, as Hyde said Thursday, “a little all over the place and not giving us many innings on a lot of nights" — the Orioles signed veterans Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone in spring training to help settle things down. Combined with Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski, it made for one of the oldest rotations in baseball.

That runs counter to the club’s rebuilding mission on its surface, but considering the mess of waiver claims and second-chance projects in the rotation a year ago, the growth the team has seen this year wouldn’t have been possible if they ran that back again.

Having Milone, LeBlanc and Wojciechowski in the rotation earlier this season kept the Orioles in close games more often than not, which created leverage situations for improving relievers such as Tanner Scott and meaningful at-bats for their young hitters. Perhaps the experience from all of last season’s losing would have helped players develop this summer regardless, but the Orioles carrying playoff hopes into September certainly helped elevate their performance in 2020.

Eventually, LeBlanc hurt his elbow and was replaced in the rotation by waiver claim Jorge López. Akin got his first start when Milone was traded to the Atlanta Braves before the Aug. 31 deadline, and Kremer took Wojciechowski’s rotation spot a week later.

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The trio doesn’t represent the Orioles' best pitching prospects — that designation goes to former top picks DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, who are developing at the secondary site in Bowie but have no experience in the high minors yet. This group is, however, the closest to the majors, and their germination from what has been a fallow starting pitching development program in recent years (with the exception of John Means) is just the beginning.

Provided there’s a minor league season next year, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells could all be added to the 40-man roster and get debuts of their own after they get some experience at Triple-A. Hall and Kyle Bradish, one of the pitchers acquired for Dylan Bundy from the Los Angeles Angels, were meant to be at Double-A this season and are right behind them. Kevin Smith, acquired last month from the New York Mets for Miguel Castro, could be in that group as well.

Until the top-line pitchers such as Rodriguez and Hall are ready, the Orioles having so many pitchers from their own farm to join the starting rotation is a bonus. If those arms stick and can pitch well, the way Akin and Kremer have shown they might be able to, that’s the kind of cost-controlled pitching that helps contribute to the long-term goals of winning. If not, there are other candidates, and the Orioles will be able to fill out a rotation that way.

There have been countless false dawns before in this organization, but with the strides made since director of pitching Chris Holt came on and implemented a new philosophy based on what worked so well for the Houston Astros, things seem different with this group.


It will take a lot more than a good year on the farm in 2019 and some impressive late-season starts in the majors this summer to convince many who have bought into the idea of homegrown pitching before. But it’s a clear goal of the organization, and Hyde said developing such pitchers for yourself is “very important.”

“We have more coming, too,” he said. "We’re excited about all of our pitching we have in our organization. You definitely want to develop starters, and you want to develop pitching, and it’s great to see with Kremer coming over in the trade, Zimm coming over in the trade, Akin being a second-round pick — it’s nice to have our guys do well in the minor leagues and now get here and get off to nice starts.

“But pitching is so hard to develop, also. It’s a little bit of a crapshoot in the minor leagues, so when they get here, you’re excited about it. These guys have shown really good stuff, and it’s a definite positive sign for our organization going forward.”