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Pitcher Wade LeBlanc might be too old to be part of the Orioles youth movement, but he’s willing to help

Veteran pitcher Wade LeBlanc hopes to land in the starting rotation for the Orioles.

Left-hander Wade LeBlanc will have to prove himself for the umpteenth time if he wants to start this season in the Orioles starting rotation, but he has already proved one thing.

Even in the midst of the hardcore rebuilding project that is the 2020 Orioles, there still is room for a 35-year-old guy to try to extend a baseball journey that has taken him all over this country and halfway around the world.

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The Orioles are his ninth major league team in a career that also included a stop in Japan. He has pitched in five of the six big league divisions and changed teams a total of 12 times, counting that brief stay with the Saitama Seibu Lions.

So, what’s a guy like that doing with a team that is focused almost entirely on developing young talent?

It’s not that complicated. The Orioles only have two established starting pitchers and veteran Alex Cobb still has to prove he’s healthy after missing almost all of last season and undergoing hip surgery. Rebuilding or not, they are going to need more than that to have any hope of establishing some semblance of stability on the mound.

LeBlanc is here on a nonroster invitation, but he’s obviously sold on the “land of opportunity” narrative the O’s have pitched to all the veteran free agents they have pursued over the past two offseasons.

“Yeah, anytime you’re signing a nonroster deal and you have to come in and compete for a job, it’s definitely a good feeling that there appears to be a good opportunity to make the team,” LeBlanc said Thursday, “assuming you take care of your business in spring.”

The fact that he arrived at the Ed Smith Stadium Complex this week without a spot on the 40-man roster doesn’t mean a whole lot, since executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has never been shy about shuffling players on and off the roster. Though LeBlanc has made more relief appearances than starts over the course of his 11-year big league career, manager Brandon Hyde said definitively that he will be a candidate to join John Means and Cobb in the rotation.

Hyde, the minor league catcher who clawed his way through the minor and major league coaching ranks to become O’s manager last season, clearly has a soft spot for a pitcher who has battled so long to stick around into his mid-30s.

“I do," Hyde said. “I think it was 13 spring trainings, a year in Japan. I’ve seen Wade a lot. He was in Pittsburgh a couple years I was in Chicago. We saw him in Seattle last year. For a guy to be able to hang on and pitch how he’s pitched throughout his whole career, and to continue to do it is special. We don’t have a whole lot of guys like that in this camp, so it’s fun to have him here.”

When the Seattle Mariners gave him a chance to start again on a regular basis in 2018, Wade LeBlanc had his best season, producing a 9-5 record and a 3.72 ERA that earned him a contract extension, but his performance declined dramatically last season.
When the Seattle Mariners gave him a chance to start again on a regular basis in 2018, Wade LeBlanc had his best season, producing a 9-5 record and a 3.72 ERA that earned him a contract extension, but his performance declined dramatically last season. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

LeBlanc reached the majors as a starter, but spent the middle years of his career as a swingman, pitching both as a starter and reliever. When the Seattle Mariners gave him a chance to start again on a regular basis in 2018, he had his best season, producing a 9-5 record and a 3.72 ERA that earned him a contract extension, but his performance declined dramatically during a 2019 season that was derailed early by an oblique injury.

Still, if he wins a place in the Orioles rotation, LeBlanc will be going from one of the more pitcher-friendly stadiums in the sport (T-Mobile Park) to cozy Camden Yards, but he’s fine with that.

“Did you see the home run totals from last year?” he said. “There aren’t many places that are pitcher-friendly anymore. You take the stadiums with a grain of salt. The fans are good. The park has aged as well as any has ever been. It’s one of my favorite places to go. It’s one of my favorite stadiums to play in. I’ve just got to keep the ball down.”

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