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Plan A of Orioles pitching failed, so they got a lot of Spenser Watkins and others

This was a good year to be a minor league journeyman pitcher at Norfolk. It wasn’t so good for the Orioles to need those journeymen, though.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Tell me your baseball team lost 110 games without telling me your baseball team lost 110 games.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

A whole lot of players who appeared for the 2021 Orioles had tenures with the team that will only ever be remembered by the most thorough of Sporcle quizzes or the most obscure of trivia inquiries. Whatever else you can say about the team, there is no question that they delivered the first, and perhaps only, big league experience for a number of minor league journeyman grinders, guys who were hanging around just hoping that some 110-loss MLB team with a ragged pitching staff might want them.

Mike Elias had assembled a quartet of them as early as spring training, players who jumped off the roster to me by virtue of their first names being spelled differently than the typical person with that name. That group is: Spenser Watkins, Conner Greene, Konner Wade, and Dusten Knight. That the O’s might use every one of these players was beyond my imagination, but here we are in October and all four of them, plus others, pitched for the team as they chewed through 39 pitchers and three position player pitchers.

Each of these guys had a different story of perseverance, of not giving up on the big league dream even as they got older and it seemed less likely. The youngest one of them was Greene, entering his age 26 season for 2021. The farther out from that you get, the less likely an MLB debut becomes.

Watkins was a former 30th round pick who finally moved on from the Tigers organization that drafted him, who was about to give up on making it to MLB and coach JV baseball. Greene went from the Blue Jays to the Royals to the Cardinals and then on to the Orioles. Wade and Knight both dipped down into independent league baseball before making it back to an affiliated team.

With each one of these players being called up, there was a similar story of triumph. Proud wives, proud parents, proud families, who kept up the support even though there was no rational reason to believe the player was ever going to make it. It’s not hard to be swept up in that to be happy for some player who stuck with it, kept at it, made it to MLB.

No one can take that away from any of these guys. They are in the record books. They are big leaguers. There are only 22,564 people who ever lived about whom that can be said. It’s a special company to be in regardless of the results that happen once you make it.

Or at least, this is what I hope those four players, and others who got brief MLB chances that may possibly never come again, can tell themselves. That wider group also includes Rule 5 pick/Ben McDonald nephew Mac Sceroler, knuckleballer Mickey Jannis, and three-game reliever Manny Barreda. No player in this whole bunch got good results in the opportunities they were given on the 2021 Orioles and it may well be that no other MLB team will ever come knocking again.

Those three guys plus the unusually-spelled first name quartet pitched a combined 112 innings for the team this year, or about 8% of the team’s innings. The lowest ERA any one of these guys managed for the team was Greene’s 7.71 in 23.1 IP. No team that is planning for success has pitchers of this ilk as part of the plan. That is part of the 2021 Orioles story of failure.

In fairness, not even the Orioles had these guys as part of their Plan A for the 2021 season. In a more ideal version of the team, they would not have been needed. But that’s not how it worked out. The rotation that should have never needed Watkins to chip in saw pitching prospects Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer wash out and Bruce Zimmermann miss significant time with an injury. One way the Orioles dealt with that was Watkins joining the rotation in July.

Among relievers, a story with a common ending to the rotation one played out. Guys who looked in the 2020 shortened season like they might carve out good bullpen roles in 2021 had some bad outcomes.

Shawn Armstrong made it 20 games before being designated for assignment for pitching poorly. César Valdez lasted longer, pitching in 39 games, but was also DFA’d. Spring training waiver claim Adam Plutko also got the DFA by season’s end. Paul Fry fell off the table around when MLB put in the new sticky stuff rules, maybe coincidentally, maybe not. And then Hunter Harvey, forever imagined as part of a future good Orioles bullpen, suffered his brand of bad injury luck, again.

Put all of that together and you get Watkins, you get Greene, you get Wade and Knight and the others. It’s almost mean to shine these guys MLB-level performance under a microscope, as if they were promising prospects who managed to miss despite can’t-miss talent.

At Triple-A Norfolk, these grinders were fine. That’s why they got the MLB opportunity. Knight had a 3.05 ERA and 1.096 WHIP down there. Wade’s ERA was 2.96 and WHIP was 1.027. After eight outings, Watkins had a 3.53 ERA and 1.093 WHIP. They deserved the chances they got with the Orioles.

Maybe they could have done a little bit better here and there in Orioles outings, but probably it’s just that they are what they are. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being a 30th round pick, or 28th round, or 7th round, who after years of effort makes it to MLB and isn’t quite good enough to stick for very long, even on a bad team that’s in the midst of a years-long rebuilding effort.

Watkins, at least, had most of a fun first month. He pitched a scoreless inning in his July 2 debut, then had three turns in the rotation where he gave up three runs combined across 15.1 innings. After four MLB games, Watkins had a 1.65 ERA and had picked up two wins. Pretty good! Then he gave up four or more runs in his next seven starts and that was the end of his time in the rotation, and just for good measure, gave up seven runs in one-third of an inning of relief in the 22-7 shellacking by Toronto. Not quite as fun.

We might get an inkling over the offseason as to how much Elias intends to try to improve on this year’s 52-110 record by how far down the list of contingency plans pitchers like Watkins and the rest of these guys end up being. I’m glad that all of them got to finally get their MLB chance, but I hope that the Orioles stop being the team for guys like them to get their opportunity pretty soon.

Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/etc., Paul Fry/César Valdez

Tomorrow: Ramón Urias