Expectations for the Orioles starting rotation were kept in check entering this season. Baltimore’s staff had three locks in Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy. After that, a plethora of guys would compete to take the ball every fifth day. No one anticipated a Cy Young award, All-Star selection, or even an ERA below four.
After Cobb, who was briefly tabbed the Orioles Opening-Day starter, suffered a right groin strain, the Orioles had only two known commodities to begin the year. Baltimore kicked around the idea of using Nate Karns, a former starter who had been plagued by injuries, every fifth day, but the injury bug bit him once again, diminishing him to a bullpen role even when healthy.
The Orioles announced at the end of spring training that they would experiment with an “opener” early in the year. Some saw this as fresh thinking by the Orioles new management. After all the talk about analytics and new-school baseball, executive vice president Mike Elias must have seen the value of the strategy the Rays rolled out a year ago.
Sure, Elias and manager Brandon Hyde may have liked the idea of an opener, but the reality was that the Orioles did not have enough MLB-level starting pitchers for a traditional rotation. Baltimore clearly did not plan on contending in 2019, but there’s still 162 games to be played, and someone has to start every single one of them.
Flash forward to today, and the Orioles have already had seven pitchers start multiple games this season. Karns “started” two games before heading back to the IL. The Orioles core three have accounted for 12, while David Hess, Dan Straily and John Means have carried the rest of the load.
Last night, Cashner picked up his fourth victory of the season in a blowout victory over the White Sox. On April 23, he matched his season win total from last year, and he made 28 starts last season. Clearly there’s some luck involved, but Cashner has been a pleasant surprise this year. His seven-inning gem against Chicago allowed the bullpen to catch its breath, and is exactly what the Orioles needed.
The true revelation of the year has come via John Means. Nick Cicere detailed Mean’s impressive start to the season, and how he’s managed to be so effective. Cicere credits a good mix of pitches, paired with the improvement of the changeup, for the soon-to-be twenty-six-year-old arm.
Hyde has stated that the Orioles plan to use Means as a starter and a reliever. While the club must be thrilled to have another rotation option, and a left handed one at that, it would be losing the only reliable member of the bullpen.
The Orioles bullpen has pitched a greater percentage of innings than any other club in Major League Baseball. Prior to last night’s game, the Orioles ‘pen had already tossed 105.2 innings. The Rays were the only other team to break the century mark, and they’ve done it by design. Baltimore has not stuck with the opener like Tampa Bay.
While the Orioles and the Rays bullpens have pitched almost the same amount of innings, Baltimore’s relievers have given up nearly double the number of runs. The 83 runs, 80 of which are earned, lead the league by a whopping 23.
Numbers like that don’t lie, and we all know that the Orioles bullpen just isn’t very good. In fact, it’s quite bad. But they also have not been put in a position to succeed. The bullpen is overworked, and roles aren’t defined. Richard Bleier’s injury hasn’t helped, while Mychal Givens has struggled to close out games.
The Orioles recalled Gabriel Ynoa earlier this week to serve as a long man. Ynoa took the place of Mike Wright, who may have finally run out of chances in Baltimore. Ynoa threw only eight innings last year after suffering a pair of injuries, but he reestablished himself in Norfolk this month.
Ynoa started in all three of his appearances this year, and had been considered a rotation candidate when healthy in years past. He’s only 25, and could follow the same path as Means if he pitches well in relief. Ynoa doesn’t blow guys away, but he keeps the ball on the ground. With the Orioles on pace to give up a record number of homers, a ground ball pitcher sounds quite refreshing. Ynoa pitched a scoreless inning against the White Sox in his season debut Monday night.
Speaking of Monday night, the game marked a rare occasion. The Orioles sent their third different position player to the mound already this season. They set a franchise record for position players pitching in a season, and it’s still April.
Hanser Alberto, Jesus Sucre and Chris Davis are not the guys you want working the ninth inning. Infielders on the mound are the perfect representation of this issue. The Orioles bullpen needs to be better, but the club needs to ask a little bit less of them. If the Orioles starters fail to work deeper into games, everyone on the diamond may get a chance to pitch before September.