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Orioles rebuild must be measured on pitching

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The Orioles’ offensive development has led to a surprising start, but pitching must be the benchmark when it comes time to measure Baltimore’s progress.

Washington Nationals v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

In case you haven’t heard, the Orioles have turned some heads this season. Several players have taken a step forward at the plate, and that bats have catapulted the club into playoff contention. While even an appearance in an extended playoff field still seems unlikely, every day the Orioles hover around .500 is a pleasant surprise.

The strong start has prompted some to wonder if the rebuilding Orioles could be ahead of schedule. One look at this year’s team compared to the past two might add strength to their argument. As the small sample size begins to grow, will they have a point?

While there is a legitimate chance that a few of the O’s hot hitters are here to stay, one peek at the club’s starting rotation cools things off. Baltimore’s starters rank 26th in ERA at 5.42 and 25th with a 5.31 FIP. They’ve allowed the third most home runs at 1.92 homers per nine innings pitched, and hold a 5-10 record through 119.2 innings.

That’s less indicative of a winning ball club.

John Means, last year’s pleasant surprise, has yet to replicated his All Star campaign from 2019. A mild case of “dead arm” paired with the loss of his father have prevented him from building up innings and settling into a routine. There’s no reason to think Means couldn’t heat up in a hurry, but it’s becoming more and more possible that 2020 could be a lost year for the 27-year-old.

Means was never a highly-touted prospect, which prompts more concern that last year may not be indicative of future performance. Still, there’s no reason to panic yet. The lefty could still serve in the front end of future Baltimore rotations.

Alex Cobb has been serviceable so far, but the market for expensive, mediocre starting pitching is not as hot this year. Even if he is not traded at the deadline, his contract will expire after next season.

Tommy Milone has impressed outside of his Opening Day hiccup and a pair of second-inning homers last night, but the crafty veteran does not appear to be a part of the team’s future plans. The clubs might flip Milone for a low level prospect, or even attempt to bring him back on another one-year deal. He’s not a long term fixture either way.

The same can be said about Asher Wojciechowski. While the O’s attempt to milk every inning of baseball the long-haired righty has to give, he does not project as a long term option. The club inked Wade LeBlanc to a one-year deal prior to the season, but the lefty appears to have thrown his last pitch with Baltimore after suffering an elbow injury over the weekend.

The Orioles recalled starter Keegan Akin to replace LeBlanc. Akin represents the first of a class of five starting pitchers that will define the next stage of this rebuild. Akin, Dean Kremer, Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Bruce Zimmermann will determine whether the O’s are ready to take another step forward.

Of course, no one should expect all five of those players to slide into the rotation. The group represents five mid-level prospects that are approaching the time for their Major League debut. Akin has yet to make a start, but that opportunity should come soon unless the Birds send soft-tossing Tom Eshelman or new project Jorge López to the hill.

Kremer, the Orioles’ 10th ranked prospect at MLB.com, could be the next Bird to make his way to Baltimore. The 24-year-old was set to begin the season at Triple-A, and his mid-90s fastball and plus curveball both appear ready to be tested at the big league level. The Orioles acquired Kremer in the Manny Machado deal along with fellow prospect Yusniel Diaz.

Baumann, Lowther and Zimmermann may all have to wait until next year to make their debut. All minor leaguers were impacted by the cancellation of the 2020 season, but these three missed out on an opportunity to separate from the pack.

Baumann checks in at number nine on the O’s prospect list. The 6’4 hurler packs a mid-high 90s fastball, and can carry the speeds late into games. He has yet to pitch above Double-A, so a promotion this season appears out of the question. However, another strong performance in 2021 could lead to a late-year debut.

Zac Lowther spent all of last year at Bowie where he paired a 13-7 record with a 2.55 ERA. The 24-year-old led the Eastern League in strikeouts, and certainly appeared on pace to pitch at Norfolk this year. There’s no reason to rush Lowther to the bigs now, but the lefty could get there next year if the strikeouts carry over to Triple-A.

Zimmermann earned a promotion to Norfolk last season, but the lefty struggled a bit through seven games. After posting a 2.58 ERA and 1.204 WHIP at Bowie, a bit of a learning curve at Norfolk makes sense. Zimmermann’s fastball sits right around 90 mph, so he’ll need to sustain success at Triple-A before getting a call.

With heralded prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall multiple years away, this is the group that can carry the rebuild further. The Orioles would like to see at least three of these pitchers having success next season, and anything promising from Akin or Kremer this year would serve as a great start.

Baltimore has surprised just about everyone to begin the year, and a strong start or two from Akin could be a good sign of things to come.