Faced with a barren rotation and the season fast approaching, the Orioles were quite active in the lead-up to spring training, adding a pair of former aces in Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey to the pitching competition. With both pitchers past their prime, Drew Bonifant recently explained why expectations should be tempered for both.
But there’s another pair of Orioles pitchers on the roster with a chance to contribute in either the bullpen, rotation, or both. These guys spent a portion of last season pitching for the O’s and both also happen to be out of minor league options, according to Spotrac. Alex Church touched on one of these players last week in an article about Orioles who are facing a make or break year.
Both of the pitchers to which I am referring have to perform well this spring in order to make the team. Otherwise, they’ll face waivers before having the potential to stay in the O’s system.
The two guys I’m talking about are Jorge Lopez and Cesar Valdez.
At 28 years old, Lopez is well past the age of prospect consideration. Currently with his third organization, Lopez was a second-round pick of the Brewers in 2011 and was the second-highest rated prospect in their system in 2016, according to Baseball America.
Lopez joined the O’s last year on August 9th after being claimed off of waivers from the Royals. In 47 career games (25 starts) with Kansas City over the course of three years, Lopez managed only a 6.42 ERA, 5.34 FIP and 1.48 WHIP.
His first run with the Orioles wasn’t any better. By the end of the 2020 season, Lopez had underwhelming numbers that included a 6.34 ERA and 5.28 FIP over the course of 38.1 total innings. He averaged 1.6 HR/9 last year too, which was right in line with his five-year career average.
While looking for some semblance of hope in Lopez’s 2020 splits, it was difficult to find any. His ERA was over six in the months of August and September. He was almost equally bad as a starter and reliever, with a 6.14 ERA in six starts and an 8.38 ERA in four relief appearances. For what it’s worth, he did perform much better at home than on the road, with ERAs of 3.81 and 12.46, respectively.
While Lopez split his time last season between the bullpen and the rotation, soon-to-be 36-year-old Cesar Valdez spent the entirety of 2020 as a reliever.
He didn’t even make the Birds’ opening day roster. Instead, Valdez was assigned to the Alternate Training Site at Bowie about a week before the July 24th opener. A little more than a month later, on August 27th, the club selected his contract and he finished the season with Baltimore.
Originally an international signee, Valdez’s previous major league experience included 20 innings (7.65 ERA) with the Diamondbacks in 2010 and 30.2 innings (7.63 ERA) with the Athletics and Blue Jays in 2017.
Two years removed from his last major league appearance, Valdez was a pleasant surprise for the O’s in 2020. He had a 1.26 ERA, 2.14 FIP and 0.69 WHIP over 14.1 relief innings. Opponents batted only .143 against Valdez and he posted a strong 4.00 SO/W. And he did all that with a fastball that averaged 85 mph.
Jon Meoli had a great piece recently that detailed the success Valdez had as a starting pitcher in the Dominican Winter League. That performance included two starts in the Caribbean World Series where he allowed only one run over 11 total innings.
Even though Valdez is in his mid-30s, somehow he won’t be arbitration eligible until 2023, and the earliest he can become a free agent is 2026. Lopez, who is almost a decade Valdez’s junior, reaches arbitration eligibility in 2022 and free agency in 2025.
Can both of these pitchers stick in the rotation and/or bullpen while consuming a spot that could just as soon go to one of the younger guys on the 40-man roster? We’ve got all spring to find out.
But it might take even longer than that.
The upcoming season will require plenty of creativity from manager Brandon Hyde in terms of pitching staff usage. With the need to avoid overworking the arms, we could see anything from a six-man rotation, to openers, or bullpen days, or maybe something even more insane.
Whatever happens, rest assured that the Orioles rotation at the end of the season will be vastly different than the version at the beginning of the season. Of course.