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Are these Orioles rookie starters for real?

Oasis or mirage? The last few starts for several O’s rookie arms have been very encouraging, but we probably shouldn’t get too crazy, either.

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

One good argument, I always felt, against the “Argh! My eyes! The Orioles are tanking!” theory was that no fewer than six Orioles prospect arms—Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, Alex Wells, Mike Baumann and Bruce Zimmermann—had to fall on their face this season in order for the Orioles rotation to be as bad as it was.

True, Mike Elias & Co. forked out, like, zero money on free agent pitcher signings this offseason. (Matt Harvey’s 127.2 innings, at $1,000,000, were a steal, in retrospect. Well, maybe.) But in the front office’s partial defense, were they supposed to not audition the stable of rookie throwers they inherited from the past regime? The COVID-19 epidemic further delayed and complicated that task, making it riskier but also more necessary to trot the rookies out there on the big stage.

And for some time, it seemed like the Orioles were going to go a grand 0-for-6 on these prospects. It was disappointing, to say the least.

In the spring, Keegan Akin pitched his way out of a sure spot in the rotation with a 10.00 ERA, a 2.44 WHIP and a .366 average against in four preseason appearances. He toiled in the minors for the month of April, then was promoted in May, not because he looked great so much as because this was the most pitching-strapped team in the league. Then he went and put up an 8.19 ERA in 13 appearances in the first half.

Zac Lowther first appeared with the team in late April, putting up an unenviable 10.80 ERA in five appearances before getting shut down in July with a shoulder injury.

Dean Kremer could not find any sort of success at the big-league level this year, but boy, did the Orioles try to make it work. Kremer made 12 starts between April 6 and June 24, and his FIP of 6.52 was almost as bad as his ERA (7.25). His strikeout/walk numbers weren’t terrible (45/24 in 49.2 IP), but he allowed more than a hit an inning, and his hard-hit numbers were super high.

Mike Baumann, the Orioles’ No. 8 prospect before getting shut down last August with a right flexor strain, spent much of the season in the minors rehabbing. He didn’t debut with the Orioles until September, and in four outings, he put up a 9.90 ERA with 13 hits allowed in ten innings.

Meanwhile, Alexander Wells debuted with the Orioles in late June, a call-up necessitated by injuries to Bruce Zimmermann and John Means. In seven appearances as a starter he put up an 8.13 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP.

Finally, Bruce Zimmermann snuck his way onto the 26-man roster out of spring training thanks to Keegan Akin’s bad performance and his own good one, but he put up fairly pedestrian numbers in 11 starts before getting shut down with bicep tendinitis in June: a 4.83 ERA and 5.11 FIP. This was the closest to a rookie starting pitcher success story the Orioles had so … ‘nuff said.

Maybe it’s the joy of playing AL East spoiler that’s produced some more inspired play of late. Maybe it’s the desire to end the season on a high note. But lately, some of these rookie starters have turned in some more inspired work. In the last week, the Orioles staff has a 3.83 ERA. In 10 games against the Phillies, Rangers and Red Sox since September 20, no Orioles starter has given up more than three runs. That includes John Means and Chris Ellis being (expectedly and unexpectedly) awesome, but also a few nice Akin, Lowther, and Wells starts and one great one by Bruce Zimmermann.

The results have been better, no doubt—especially now that the O’s took two of three games from the Red Sox with an impromptu rotation of Zimmermann, Lowther, and Wells this week. These three are trending up as the season ends. Minus one bad start against the Blue Jays, Zac Lowther has a 2.32 ERA in four starts since returning from injury. Zimmermann hadn’t pitched since June, but he made his only start a good one: four innings with one run allowed. He’ll get another chance to face the Blue Jays this weekend. Finally, Alexander Wells saved his best start of the year for last with 6.0 IP against a playoff-hungry, hard-hitting Boston lineup and only one run allowed on three hits.

This is awesome, but it’s too soon to bust out the champagne just yet. For one thing, Wells was knocked around in his last four starts prior (7.32 FIP), so I wouldn’t say that he’s headed into the offseason with a long track record of success. Zimmermann’s FIP in his one start back is 6.91 and his K/9 of 4.50 is pedestrian. Lowther, meanwhile, has the best strikeout numbers of any starter other than John Means and—sure, why not—Conner Greene, but his 5.36 FIP is still high.

Meanwhile, Akin, before being shut down with an oblique on September 28, had a final run that was decent, but not wow. In eight of Akin’s last starts, he allowed one run three times and three runs three times, to give him a 4.46 ERA down the stretch. His FIP is right around there, too, and his strikeout numbers are … just aite.

So in short, the image that jump out at you from this bunch and their peripheral starts is: a little meh. That said, I’d be surprised if the team parted ways with any of them this offseason. It’s too soon, especially after COVID deprived the team of valuable data on the bunch. (That doesn’t mean they won’t clean house of a lot of pitchers, by the way; just not these ones.)

Asked Thursday if the Orioles planned to sign any arms in the winter, Mike Elias told reporters that “it would be very overly optimistic of us to assume that we have enough pitching to compete in our division just by bringing back returning players.” After what we saw this year, he’s right. But the entire crop of prospects and former prospects should get a chance to audition anew for the rotation next spring. Dean Kremer and Mike Baumann, both in Norfolk without having shown a ton this year, and Alex Wells, who has basically two good starts in eight tries in 2021, are starting at a presumptive disadvantage compared to Zimmermann, Lowther, and Akin. But with Birdland pitching in the state it’s in, these guys have a lot to prove, and potentially a lot to gain.