It was a sneaky big move, and it came out of pretty much nowhere. When the Orioles claimed Hector Velazquez off waivers from the Red Sox, it generated some ripples across the league — this was someone who played a decent part on a World Series winner, after all — and brought up the question of just what role he’d fill with Baltimore.
A tweet by Roch Kubatko dealt a blow to any mounting intrigue. Kubatko said Velazquez will be a long reliever in Baltimore, and will not be a candidate — at least, not early on — for the rotation.
So now, the question becomes: Should he be?
If you look at Velazquez’s splits, the Orioles are making the right decision. He has a 2.99 ERA in 99.1 career innings as a reliever, and a 5.27 mark in 66.2 innings as a starter. That disparity was stark as well during his 2018 season, when he helped the Red Sox to the championship by going 7-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 47 appearances. He had a 2.64 ERA out of the bullpen, and a 4.15 ERA in starts.
So when going by statistical precedent, it’s an easy call. The case for Velazquez in the back end of the rotation becomes...well...who else is going to do it?
The Orioles have no sure things in their rotation, but they at least have some locks for opportunities. John Means may have had a fluke season last year, but he at least deserves the chance to lead the way this season. Alex Cobb could be on the injured list three pitches into the season, but he also is a slam-dunk for a rotation spot.
After that, it’s all question marks.
The Orioles’ depth chart has Kohl Stewart in the third spot. That would be the failed Twins prospect who allowed three runs on five hits in three innings in his first start of the spring. No. 4 is Asher Wojciechowski, who went 4-8 with a 4.92 ERA as an Orioles starter and hardly made the case for a rotation spot that Means did or that Hanser Alberto did for the lineup.
No. 5 is Wade LeBlanc, who was 9-5 with a 3.72 ERA mostly as a starter in 2018, but 6-7 with a 5.71 ERA mostly as a reliever last year, and who’ll turn 36 in August. No. 6 is Keegan Akin, who along with Dean Kremer and Michael Baumann and Zac Lowther is part of the youth wave the Orioles are hoping will start to make itself seen at the big-league level this season.
That’s not to say the Orioles have nothing in those spots. There is some upside and potential, particularly in the forms of the young pitchers who should be making their debuts.
There just aren’t surefire locks. There’s nobody that makes you think “well, you can’t take HIM out.”
And Velazquez isn’t that kind of pitcher either. He struggled mightily last year, seeing his ERA climb from 3.18 to 5.43 and his WHIP rise from 1.447 to 1.527, and was ineffective enough that a Red Sox team that was strapped for pitching all season long still sent him down to the minor leagues.
But this is a pitcher who went 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA over the two seasons before last year, so it would seem strange if a team with as much uncertainty in the pitching staff as the Orioles have didn’t tinker around and see what they had in the 31-year-old.
And maybe they will. Pitching rotation spots aren’t as iron-clad as they used to be as recently as five to 10 years ago, when starters and relievers had defined responsibilities and didn’t cross over into each other’s roles. Now, with openers and pre-determined short starts, it’s more common for long relievers to be starting pitchers in every way but the title.
Given Velazquez’s tendency to pitch better out of the bullpen, it’s logical for the Orioles to start off that way with him. Let the new guy be comfortable.
It’ll be interesting to see, however, how soon the team — whether because of injury, other starters’ ineffectiveness or Velazquez’s own performance on the mound — thinks about changing the plan.