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Are there any starting pitchers hidden in the Orioles bullpen?

The Orioles left the winter meanings still absolutely desperate for starting pitching. While the majority of Baltimore’s pitching prospects are a year or two away, could there be an in-house candidate hidden in the bullpen?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Watching former Orioles move on to bigger and better things can be bittersweet. Of course, when a player leaves Baltimore, he’s nearly guaranteed to have bigger and better things on the horizon. Still, it’s never fun watching some of the best players from last year’s club move to another organization.

The prospects help, and everyone must wait patiently to see if the deals that sent away the Orioles’ starting shortstop and most reliable starting pitcher yield anything noteworthy. The Orioles have Hanser Alberto to handle second base, and could call on Richie Martin to play short on Opening Day if they needed to. Even if Martin starts the year at Triple-A, it’s easy enough for Baltimore to sign a veteran infielder to bridge the gap. Who will that be? We’ll just have to wait and see.

The real hole on this team, or at least the deepest one, is in the starting rotation. Bundy filled 161.2 innings for a team that needed every single one of them. The Orioles sent Andrew Cashner to Boston last season, and although he could potentially return, Bundy and AL Rookie of the Year runner-up John Means were the only two the Birds counted on all year.

In case you’re keeping score at home, Bundy and Cashner’s departures leave the O’s with exactly one reliable starting pitcher. Means, who only broke camp with the team last season because he was left handed, could easily stumble at some point during his sophomore season. The O’s hope this is the year that Alex Cobb can finally stay healthy, but I think just about everyone will believe it when they see it.

So Baltimore needs pitching. At least it’s an easy need to spot. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple when the organization isn’t looking to spend. The Orioles didn’t bid on a top-tier pitcher like Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, and they didn’t make a play for Madison Bumgarner or even former trade-deadline acquisition Wade Miley. The two year, $15 million deal Miley received from the Reds is still too pricey for a rebuilding Baltimore. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for improvement via free agency.

The Orioles need guys to take the ball every fifth day. Asher Wojciechowski likely can, and Keegan Akin may be asked to as early as April. Akin, the Orioles 11th overall prospect, could likely use a bit more seasoning himself, but the club’s need may force him to the show a little earlier than expected. Whether that’s the right move is a conversation for another day.

After Akin, the O’s farm system takes a dip in age and experience. The cavalry may arrive someday, but they’re not ready yet. So if the O’s look in house, their eyes must shift to left center field.

The Orioles bullpen may not be impressive, but it’s one of the more solidified pieces of the team entering 2020. Whether or not Mychal Givens survives the off-season trade rumors, Brandon Hyde has a general idea of what to expect from his relievers. Givens and Richard Bleier would anchor the back end, with young guns like Hunter Harvey, Dillon Tate and Paul Fry setting up the duo. Of course, a lot can change between now and Opening Day.

Harvey and Tate are naturals to come up in any starter discussion because of their history in the minors. Harvey, the O’s top choice in the 2013 draft, was projected as a top of the rotation arm before a string of injuries derailed his development. He started 11 games for Double-A Bowie last season before pitching out of the bullpen at Norfolk and in Baltimore.

Harvey has started games in every season he’s been in the Orioles system, but the 6.1 innings he flashed in relief (through seven appearances) have the organization excited about his potential as a shutdown reliever. There’s no doubt that the club could reconsider the 25-year-old’s role in the future, but his brief success last season paired with the medical record point to him pitching in relief for the duration.

Tate, a former fourth overall pick in 2015, appears to be another first-round pick destined for the ‘pen. He started seven games for Bowie after being acquired from the Yankees in 2018, but was the first to take the ball in only two of his 37 outings across Bowie, Norfolk and Baltimore last season.

It wouldn’t be an offseason if someone around here didn’t ask whether the Orioles should convert Miguel Castro into a starting pitcher. If you’re wondering why there hasn’t been a ton of chatter surrounding Castro, it likely has something to do with his 1-3 record and 1.418 WHIP through 65 appearances last season. His 2019 WHIP was nearly identical to his total in 2018, but the ERA ballooned over four for the first time.

Castro struck out 14 more batters in 13 fewer innings compared to 2018, and saw his average outing dip closer to just one inning per appearance. The thought of moving Castro to the rotation may have come and gone, but the guy is somehow still only 24. Never say never.

The Orioles did pick up a pair of pitchers in the Rule 5 draft this winter, and the club will likely keep them around as long as possible. Former Houston prospect Brandon Bailey started 17 games at Double-A last season. He pitched to a 4-5 record and 3.30 ERA through 22 total appearances.

Bailey, the O’s first selection in the draft, will likely be given every opportunity to stick with the big club. Few will have a greater opportunity this spring than Bailey. Expect the former Corpus Christi Hook to be stashed in the bullpen if he struggles, but don’t rule out a swingman spot or even consistent starts if he flashes potential in Sarasota.

The Orioles selected former Chicago prospect Michael Rucker in the second round of the Rule 5. While Rucker did start at Double-A, he pitched primarily in relief last season for Triple-A Iowa. It’s difficult to see Rucker cracking the rotation even on this team.

One thousand words later, and here we are. I have no choice but to mention David Hess as a starting rotation candidate in 2020. If you’ve stuck around this long, you already know. We’ve all seen this movie before.

Hess started 14 games last season and appeared out of the ‘pen nine times. He finished the year 1-10 with a 7.09 ERA. His WHIP finished at 1.550 and his WAR checked in at -1.1. In 2018, he finished 3-10 with a 4.88 ERA and 1.384 WHIP. He is a below replacement player.

That being said, Hess has experience (33 starts) and winning is not the Orioles’ primary focus. David Hess will likely start games for the 2020 Orioles. Watching that may be even tougher than seeing Bundy or Villar go.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. It remains to be seen if the Orioles will sign Major League caliber starting pitchers, or if they’ll be forced to stay in house. Perhaps these are the difficult decisions Mike Elias suggested were on the horizon.