On Thursday night, the Orioles signed a minor-league contract with lefty reliever Fernando Abad, whom fans may best remember for being the guy whose inside pitching led to him and Manny Machado getting ejected from a game in July 2014. Well, water under the bridge, I hope. Whether Abad ends up in the 2021 bullpen or not, the signing signals that Orioles brass is not content to rest this year’s pitching hopes on the young (albeit strapping) shoulders of a crop of rising prospects.
The good news, though—for the front office and fans alike—is that there is already something of an excess of riches on this team when it comes to pitching, especially starting pitching. Normally, that kind of talk is sheer folly in these parts, but take a look at the 40-man roster: truthfully, there are lots of decent pitchers kicking around the organization. With John Means, Alex Cobb, and 2020 debutants Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin all basically guaranteed a roster spot, the team is in the nice position of having just one rotation slot to fill, or possibly one plus a swingman in the mold of the departed Tom Eshelman. In no order, the leading candidates for that fifth spot are: Travis Lakins Sr., Jorge López, Bruce Zimmermann, Alex Wells, Zac Lowther, Michael Baumann, recent Rule 5 pickups Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler, and that good old Elias favorite, “Veteran TBD.”
Let’s consider each in order of rising likeliness. The Rule 5 guys, Wells and Sceroler, would seem to have an impossible hill to climb. Sceroler has a plus splitter, while Wells is a “6’8” monster,” and both have swing-and-whiff stuff. But with barely any Double-A experience between them, it’s hard to think they’ll leapfrog more seasoned prospects, unless one of them flashes enough to be stashed in the bullpen. Lakins and López, meanwhile, seem more like long relief than starters, though a good spring for either could change that. (Lakins Sr. would seem to have a slight edge here, his 2.81 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 25.2 innings beating the up-and-down López, a waiver pickup from Kansas City who finished 2020 with an unsightly 6.69 ERA.)
The real battle for the fifth spot, as I see it, is between relatively untested prospects Bruce Zimmermann, Michael Baumann, Alex Wells and Zac Lowther versus that “veteran TBD later.” Baumann, the Orioles’ No. 9 prospect, has a powerful fastball-slider combo, but per MLB Pipeline, it’s the development of his secondary pitches, the changeup and curve, that will determine whether he sticks in the majors. Alex Wells, the epitome of the crafty lefty, was protected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft, but execs will surely want to see whether his low-‘90s stuff plays at Triple-A Norfolk. Maryland native Zimmermann struggled in a blink-and-you-missed it pair of appearances in 2020, but he has refined his mechanics under the new organization, and you can tell they like him. For my money, perhaps the most mature of the bunch is Zac Lowther, a lefty who doesn’t have dominant stuff per se, but who has proven a “strikeout artist” at every level he’s pitched so far with his low release point, spin, and craftiness.
If any one of Zimmermann, Lowther, or TBD turn out to fit the bill, the Orioles rotation could—dare we say it—look better than it has in years, especially if their tried ‘n true starters have solid seasons. This might not be such a long shot, either. Headed into his final year in a four-year, $57 million contract, Alex Cobb has a 5.10 ERA and 1.42 WHIP with the Orioles, the last three seasons marred by injury. But with a clean bill of health and a new data-driven approach, Cobb could approximate his Tampa Bay form, where he put up a 48-35 line with a 3.50 ERA in six seasons. Lefty John Means, the Orioles’ find of 2019, had wretched stats in the first half of his shortened sophomore season (0-2 with an 8.59 ERA in five starts) but he dazzled down the stretch, with a 2.48 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 29 innings. With personal bereavement and the start-stop timeline of 2020 likely affecting Means’ timing early on, I’m inclined to believe that his uptick in fastball velocity since 2019 and continued pitch mix refinements bode well for the reappearance of second-half Means in 2021.
Newcomers Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer should also hold onto, and develop in, their rotation slots. The lefty Akin, long one of the Orioles’ best minor-league pitchers, had to wait for injury and a trade (to Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, respectively) to get his crack at the rotation. Based on six starts in 2020, the judges’ opinion was: Akin “showed some potential.” BRef’s prediction for Akin in 2021 is a 5-5, 4.40 ERA-season with a 10.9 strikeout ratio, a line many fans would happily take. Dean Kremer, meanwhile, wowed early in his big-league debut season, and though he faltered in his last start of the year, his mid-‘90s fastball and hard-to-square-up curveball played well enough in the big leagues that he’s earned another bite at the apple. Kremer’s projected 2021 totals: 5-5 with a 4.45 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 85 innings.
Of course, of course: imponderables. There is almost no chance that this is the pitching roster that will march into the 2020 season. But bearing that in mind, 2021 looks to be the year that, excitingly, we see more from prospects Baumann, Lowther, and Zimmermann. Meanwhile, Wells, DL Hall, and Grayson Rodriguez may not be far off.
After years of wandering in the (talent pipeline) desert, it looks like many of the building blocks are in place for Orioles rotations of the next few years. Is it crazy to hope for decent output on the mound from this group, even in 2021? Maybe not.