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Orioles positional preview: Starting rotation

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Without 2019 breakout star John Means to begin the season, the Orioles will look to a couple new veterans and a group of inexperienced arms.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox
John Means of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 14, 2019.
Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

For players about to start the 2020 baseball season, the pressure will be cranked up extra high. The starting pitchers especially will have very little time this season to show what they’ve got. With a 60-game frenzy over the next two months and change, those who make it from start to finish are projected for somewhere around 10 starts apiece. So beginning the season strong will be more important than ever.

Turnover in the starters’ department for the Orioles has been considerable since April of last year.

Looking back on the starting rotation at the beginning of 2019, there was Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy, who are no longer with the team, and David Hess, who is no longer in the club’s starting plans. Nate Karns also began the year as an opener, an experiment that abruptly ended after two appearances. Cashner pitched the first game of the season in a move that was necessitated by Alex Cobb — who was originally tabbed the Opening Day starter — being placed on the IL before the season began.

Two years into his four year contract with Baltimore, Cobb has not been the same pitcher he was with Tampa for the bulk of his career. He didn’t get a full spring training in 2018 — his first year in Baltimore — and he proceeded to register a 4.90 ERA in 28 starts, then missed time at the end of the year due to blister problems. Last season he made three starts in April, pitching a total of 12.1 innings while allowing 15 earned runs, but didn’t make another start all year due to back and hip injuries. The blisters have also proven to be a recurring problem, flaring up again this spring before training camps were shut down.

Health is going to be such a huge factor for all position groups with the expedited summer camp leading into this truncated 60 game season, and the rotation is no exception. Pitchers tend to have the most inherent injury risk, which has been evidenced by the bumps and bruises and tired arms that have reared their ugly heads during the ramp up at Camden Yards.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that this rotation will change not only a little from now on, but a lot by the end of September.

A few days ago the news broke that John Means would miss the Opening Day start and Tommy Milone would replace him. Hopefully the Orioles’ top starter can bounce back quickly from this ‘dead arm’ period.

Means was by far the Orioles’ most valuable starting pitcher last season. He was also better in the first half of 2019 and had to deal with a biceps injury late in the season. He managed a 2.50 ERA before the All-Star break but that number rose to 4.85 in the second half. His final numbers came out to a 3.60 ERA and 4.41 FIP in 31 appearances (27 starts).

John Means was officially placed on the 10-day IL yesterday.

Helping to fill the gap, a new pair of veteran left-handers are ticketed for the rotation heading into the weekend. Originally signed to minor league deals, 35-year-old Wade LeBlanc and 33-year-old Tommy Milone had their contracts purchased last week. Both pitchers are well traveled, with Milone having appeared for six teams in nine years before the O’s and LeBlanc with seven teams in 11 years.

The following numbers make these two look even more similar: Milone has a 50-47 career record with a 4.47 ERA and 4.58 FIP while LeBlanc is 45-57 with a 4.46 ERA and 4.68 FIP.

Since the club has no commitment to either player past this year, the short game is to let them crush innings and the long game is to hope that one or more minor leaguers can break into the rotation sooner rather than later.

Whether that happens this year for a lucky few from the group practicing in Bowie is yet to be seen. Notable minor league starters in the Orioles’ player pool include RHP Michael Baumann, RHP Dean Kremer and LHP Keegan Akin.

While the aforementioned players may appear in Baltimore at some point in the future, only three fifths of the current rotation has been made public at this point. MLB.com has the Orioles starters listed for the Boston series as Milone, Cobb and LeBlanc.

It would seem as though the fourth spot in the rotation is Asher Wojciechowski‘s to lose, which means that the final spot could be either Kohl Stewart or Tom Eshelman if Means cannot return soon.

Wojciechowski joined the Orioles July 2nd of last year, which was one day after he was traded from the the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A affiliate to the Norfolk Tides. He made 16 starts for the O’s and had one appearance out of the pen, striking out 80 batters in 82.1 total innings with a 4.92 ERA, 5.30 FIP and 1.9 HR/9.

Kohl Stewart was signed as a free agent out of the Minnesota Twins organization last December. He’s a former first round pick in 2013 who has logged a 3.60 ERA in parts of seven minor league seasons and a 4.79 ERA during brief exposure with the Twins in 2018 and 2019.

There’s also an outside chance that 35-year-old right-hander Cesar Valdez — whose only major league experience is nine games with Arizona in 2010 (7.95 ERA) and 11 games with Oakland and Toronto in 2017 (7.63 ERA) — could enter the conversation. In 2019 he pitched to a 2.26 ERA in 23 starts in the Mexican League and from 2019-2020 he had a 1.11 ERA in six starts (seven total appearances) in the Dominican Winter League.

Yet another starter to include here is Tom Eshelman, who replaced Means on Sunday night and shut out the Phillies for 4.2 innings while racking up five strikeouts. But last year he allowed 26 earned runs over 36 innings with the O’s.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways that manager Brandon Hyde can go with his group of starters and swingmen, and there’s a good chance he will be forced to travel a lot of those different paths.

Along those same lines, it’ll be interesting to see if the Orioles try the opener strategy again this year and whether they fully commit to it this time, keeping in mind the affordance of expanded rosters.

And lastly, a massive wrinkle that will add intrigue to this season is the universal DH. I have blatant AL bias so I like the move, on account of not having to watch an automatic out every ninth batter through the order during interleague games anymore. Swapping a pitcher out of lineups for a bonafide designated hitter will only lead to more runs, like it or not, and that means more threats to Oriole pitching too.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.