Birdland experienced a bit of relief this week. Former assistant general manager of the Astros, and current Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations, Mike Elias appears to have dodged any potential discipline in Houston’s sign stealing saga. While his former boss Jeff Luhnow is now unemployed, Elias will continue to run one of the league’s largest rebuilds.
There’s also a bit of a spin zone for Orioles fans. It’s completely normal to have a thought or two along the lines of “hey, we didn’t win, but at least we’re not cheaters.” While it already may be a bit of a reach, any positive thoughts regarding Orioles fandom can be brought down a peg or two when pondering the club’s rotation in 2020.
Dylan Bundy was shipped to Los Angeles/Anaheim, and a free agent of greater or equal value won’t be landing in Baltimore. John Means, a rookie last season, appears to be the O’s best known commodity. While the 26-year-old will look to build on a successful freshman campaign that landed him second in AL Rookie of the Year voting, he could easily experience a bit of a sophomore slump.
Alex Cobb will look to finally contribute for a club that guaranteed him $57 million over four years. Baltimore desperately needs a full year out of the former Tampa Bay Ray, and as Drew Bonifant rightfully suggested, the pressure is on.
Cobb will turn 33 before the season begins, and he brings a quality track record to the table when healthy. The Orioles do not need the Boston native to replicate his sub-three ERAs from 2013 or 2014. They don’t need his WHIP to match the 1.221 that he posted his final year in Tampa, or the winning records he delivered in five of his six years for the Rays.
The Orioles need innings from Cobb. They need starts, and they need some of those starts to go at least six frames. Health will determine whether Cobb’s third year in black and orange was a success, and any friendly numbers will come as a bonus.
Asher Wojciechowski will also pitch in the rotation.
After the Birds’ new “Big Three” there are at least two more spots available. The Orioles could sign another experienced pitcher to a minor league deal, and there will likely be another waiver claim at some point. Still, Baltimore will have trouble giving these spots away.
The Orioles inked Kohl Stewart to a two-way deal that financially incentives him to make the big club. The club selected Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker in the Rule-5 draft, and David Hess is still looming on the 40-man roster.
Stewart, a former fourth-overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Minnesota twins, along with Bailey and Rucker offer a bit of excitement, and any could emerge as legitimate contenders for playing time this spring. But the Orioles only have one in-house candidate that could waltz right into a rotation spot this season.
The Orioles selected LHP Keegan Akin in the second round of the 2016 draft. The Western Michigan product worked his way through the minors before landing at Triple-A Norfolk last season. He will turn 25 or April 1, and is without question the highest pitching prospect on the experience/potential scale that Baltimore has right now. He’s not the highest rated arm, but he’s the only one ready.
Akin posted a 6-7 record, 4.73 ERA and 1.513 WHIP for the Tides last season. The number of losses, ERA and WHIP were all an increase from his 2018 year at Bowie, and he rated 2.2 years below the average age of the league.
Everything about that last sentence should point to Akin returning to Norfolk next season, but the Orioles current roster is uniquely positioned to give an in-house guy a shot. Dean Kremer isn’t quite there yet, so Akin could easily gain the opportunity.
Even with the juiced balls allegedly making their way to Triple-A, Akin kept the ball in the ball park last season. He allowed only 10 home runs in 112.1 innings, and 30% of those came in his final three starts. Akin struck out 131 batters that averaged out to 10.5 K’s/9IP.
Unfortunately, control was an issue. Akin walked 61 batters last season. The total eclipsed his 2018 number by three, despite Akin working nearly 25 less innings than he did in his final year at Bowie. A higher walk rate makes sense at a new level, but that doesn’t exactly bode well for a promotion to the bigs.
However, the Orioles are desperate for pitching. Baltimore likely wants Akin with the big club as soon as he is ready, and he’ll have an opportunity to prove that in the spring. If Akin shows improved control in Sarasota, he could easily wind up on the 26-man roster. The Orioles placed Akin on the 40-man at the end of 2019 to protect him from the Rule-5 draft, so that would not be an issue.
The Orioles are in the middle of a long-term rebuild. Long-term referencing no need, and no desire to compete this season. Baltimore does not need Akin for a playoff push, and there’s no reason to force him to Camden Yards if he definitely needs more time at Triple-A.
But the opportunity is there. The door is wide open in Baltimore for anyone that can pitch, and Akin will look to do that this Spring. Mike Elias has not made a habit of rushing players along (see Mountcastle, Ryan), but there’s no way of knowing how close Elias and Co. feel Akin is to MLB ready. A string of strong starts in Sarasota could push him over the edge.
They definitely have the room for him.