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Do all three veteran starters have the inside track on the starting rotation?

Will Matt Harvey, Felix Hernandez and Wade LeBlanc all make the starting rotation on Opening Day?

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

There are certain names that move the needle.

In the middle of another slow free agency period in Baltimore, the Orioles inked former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez to a minor-league deal. Cy Young moves the needle— so does King Felix.

Nobody expects Hernandez to perform like he did in Seattle. Some hope the righty can deliver quality depth, while others just want the fringe hall-of-famer to avoid embarrassment. I, for one, would at least like to see him stay healthy.

The same can be said for Matt Harvey and his DC Comics nickname. The Dark Knight may have a shorter track record of success, but his recent comments on analytics are enough to generate a Pennyworth of excitement.

Wade LeBlanc has played the veteran pitching depth role before. He struggled mightily last season (8.06 ERA through 22 13 innings) before a stress fracture in his throwing elbow mercifully ended his season. Still, Baltimore liked enough about the 36-year-old to kick the tires once again.

For a group that would seemingly be looked on to “eat innings,” none of them have a particularly large appetite. Matt Harvey has only worked later than the sixth inning one time since 2018. LeBlanc failed to make it through six frames last season in Baltimore, and Hernandez has not pitched since 2019. These three will not be working late.

The aging trio will compete with an abundance of young arms this spring in Sarasota. With expectations low, but a true need in place, there’s really only one question. What will it take to make the club?

The short answer? Throw strikes.

Brandon Hyde would have a plan when any of the vets take the mound. Get five innings and hand it to the ‘pen. That plan can work with a longman or two that have minor league options, but it turns into a real problem when it’s set in motion early.

The Orioles last made the playoffs in 2016. The backend of that rotation featured a combination of Yovani Gallardo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Wade Miley, Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright. Wilson “led” the group with a 5.27 ERA, while Wright just nudged out Wilson with a 1.426 WHIP. Just to be clear, those were the best numbers the group had to offer.

The Orioles rotation was carried by Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman and a young Dylan Bundy. The other guys? not so much. I’m not saying the 2021 Orioles can make a Wild Card run, just pointing out that the back end of the rotation hasn’t looked pretty in quite some time. Surely one or two of these guys can post Ubaldo level numbers, right?

Stay healthy, throw strikes, pitch in the big leagues.

There appears to be a clear expiration date for any of these three in the rotation. The best case scenario would see a pitcher show their value, attract an offer at the trade deadline, and exchange thank you notes with Mike Elias on his way out. A more likely outcome would include a trip to the injured list prior to being forced out by a pitching prospect.

This entire conversation is irrelevant if Mike Elias and the Orioles abandon the concept of making prospects prove it in the minor leagues. Bruce Zimmermann snuck into Baltimore for a cup of coffee at the end of last season. If he has a strong camp, there is an argument for playing him right away. The same can be said for Alexander Wells or Zac Lowther.

Even if the trio of minor-league signings fail to work out, the Orioles could still turn to Jorge Lopez or swingman Thomas Eshelman to bridge the gap. Those two would likely slot in as swingmen if the O’s rolled the dice on the vets, but could just as easily start.

Lopez, in particular, has the arm strength to work deep into games. Lopez finished 2-2 with a 6.69 ERA after Baltimore claimed the 28-year-old out of Kansas City. He flashed potential with five scoreless innings against New York and seven innings of one-run ball against the Braves.

The Orioles do not lack starting pitching depth; they lack starting pitching. There are only three players penciled into the rotation, and Hyde would say that only one of the three is locked in. That’s a scary thought, especially for a team that is at least considering utilizing a six-man rotation.

The entire rotation from Triple-A Norfolk may migrate to Baltimore by the end of the season. Rule 5 picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells will have something to say this spring, and Lopez deserves the right to compete. Still, Harvey, Hernandez and LeBlanc will likely get the first shot if they can do two things.

Stay healthy and throw strikes.