Over the last few weeks, the Orioles front office has been quietly building up some depth on the pitching roster. And that’s good because with pitchers and catchers set to report to Sarasota on February 11, this starting rotation still looks like it’ll be held together with scotch tape and a prayer.
With stalwart Dylan Bundy off to the Angels and Gabriel Ynoa and Aaron Brooks off to Korea, the Orioles have 381 innings to replace. Currently, the only real locks for the rotation are lefty John Means, last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up following a tremendous season, and the veteran Alex Cobb, entering the third season of a four-year, $57 million contract that’s played out in disappointing fashion, to say the least. Cobb is still due $29 million over the next two seasons.
The third slot likely belongs to Asher Wojciechowski, a 31-year-old journeyman who went 4-8 for the Orioles last season, putting up a 4.92 ERA and a 1.312 WHIP while showing occasional flashes of brilliance. The self-described “slower learner” has added a changeup this offseason, so maybe this’ll be the year Wojo finally comes into himself.
Beyond that, the field is open. Back at the Winter Meetings in December, manager Brandon Hyde told reporters he would like eight viable rotation alternatives. So you figure some extra depth wouldn’t hurt.
Brady Rodgers, RHP, 29 (signed Jan. 23)
Rodgers is an old friend of Mike Elias, drafted by the Astros in Round Three of the 2012 draft. The 2016 Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year was once a top-30 Astros prospect before he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017. He’s pitched only 116 2/3 innings in the years since. In 2019, he went 4-0 with a 3.65 ERA in eight starts for the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate before the team released him on August 22.
César Valdez, RHP, 34 (signed to minor-league deal Jan. 20)
Valdez made his debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010, then didn’t return to the majors until seven years later with the Oakland Athletics and the Toronto Blue Jays. Last year, he pitched in both Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and combined for a 19-3 record with a 2.01 ERA and 7.71 strikeouts-to-walks ratio in 30 games. Valdez has also been in the Pirates, Marlins and Astros organizations, which explains his ties to Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias.
Kohl Stewart, RHP, 25 (signed to split deal on Dec. 29)
Stewart was once a highly-touted prospect, garnering a $4,544,400 signing bonus as the Minnesota Twins’ fourth overall pick in 2013 before stalling out in their farm system. The former high-school ace was known for a dominant fastball and sinker, but failed to miss many bats. He went 2-2 with a 6.39 ERA in nine games last season, putting up a 1.461 WHIP and striking out just 3.6 batters per nine innings. The Sun’s Jon Meoli thinks he could benefit from working with Chris Holt on mix, sequencing, and usage.
Brandon Bailey, RHP, 25 (picked up in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12)
Another former Houston guy, Bailey was a sixth-round signing by the A’s in 2016 shipped to the Astros in 2017. One big concern about the 5’10” righty is his size: only 5% of MLB pitchers are below 6’0”, because it’s hard to blow guys away with your fastball without the added leverage. On the other hand, our Nick Cicere believes this “undersized overachiever” is “someone who has an idea of how to pitch,” and who may have a chance to stick around.
Mike Rucker, RHP, 25 (picked up in the Rule 5 draft on Dec. 12)
A long-time Cubs farmhand, Rucker carries a four-pitch mix, with an 82ish mph “power” curve and a 77ish mph “show-me” curve to go along with a cutter/slider and a fastball that regularly touches 95, especially after a move to the bullpen in 2019. It’s not clear whether the Orioles will want to use Rucker as a starter or in the ‘pen. One thing Rucker can do is strike guys out: he averages an 8.8 K/9 rate since the Cubs drafted him in 2016.
Isaac Mattson, RHP, 24 (acquired in the Dylan Bundy trade on Dec. 4)
Drafted in 2017, the former 19th-round pick has overperformed at every level he’s pitched at. According to Joe Trezza, Mattson is “the most big league ready prospect acquired” in the Bundy deal, a guy who rose through the Angels system on the strength of “gaudy strikeout numbers, using swing-and-miss stuff that translated at every level.” Last season, the Angels used him exclusively as a reliever, during which time he put up a delightful 13.5 K/9 ratio in 73 innings, but the Orioles may stretch him out as a starter at Norfolk before giving him a chance to pitch with the big-league club.
Rob Zastryzny, LHP, 27 (signed minor league deal on Nov. 26)
One thing that separates the Canadian-born lefty from most guys on the Orioles roster is a World Series ring. Zastryzny (ZAS-tris-knee) put up a 1.13 ERA in 11 appearances for the Cubs in September 2016 (though he didn’t get to play in the NLCS or World Series). A 2017 Cubs scouting report describes him “looking dominant in bullpen; fastball up to 94 along with a curve, slider; can hit all velocity spots between 74 and 94.” Zastryzny struggled in two seasons after that. But given the Orioles’ serious lack of starter depth, he may get the opportunity to fill a need.
Then there are the internal candidates for the last two slots. David Hess was just good enough last season to avoid Brooks’ and Ynoa’s fate (and director of pitching Chris Holt sounds pretty stoked about his recent improvement). At 24, No. 11 prospect Keegan Akin looks poised to make the leap to the MLB at some point this season after going 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA and an International League-leading 131 strikeouts in 25 games for Norfolk. Akin will get an extended look in Sarasota, though it’s likely the team decides to keep seasoning him in the Minors–unless the big league club’s need proves too great. The Orioles’ projected Triple-A roster contains a lot of exciting names, but dipping into these resources simply isn’t Mike Elias’ style. Ty Blach, Tom Eshelman, Luis Ortiz and Chandler Shepherd could also get a shot to make the roster.
It’s no easy thing, going up thirteen or so times against the 300-lb gorillas of the AL East. Do you think one or more of these guys is equal to the task? Or will the Orioles make another eleventh-hour pitcher signing?