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Orioles positional preview: Starting rotation

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While the O’s enter the 2021 season with a number of weaknesses, the uncertainty of the starting rotation may be the most glaring.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles have reached a point in the rebuild where the promised rosy future is in sight. The organization has started to turn the proverbial corner, and it might actually be able to think about contending at the big league level relatively soon—not 2021, but soon.

But if you were tasked with picking the unit that is furthest from being ready for the bright lights of a September pennant race, it wouldn’t take long to come to a conclusion. The O’s starters are an unproven bunch.

Throughout much of the winter, the Orioles had just three names penciled into their 2021 starting rotation. The team came down to the final day of the Grapefruit League season with three names penciled in to the rotation, but it’s not the same trio that was expected.

John Means has retained his spot atop the O’s list of hurlers. For the second straight season, the 2019 All Star was named the team’s Opening Day starter. He was unable to make that start last season due to injury, but seems on track to make it happen this time around.

There is plenty of reason to be excited about Means. He finished 2020 in the top 15% of the league in xERA, xBA, xwOBA, walk rate and fastball spin. He was striking out more batters and walking fewer than in 2019, and his fastball velocity jumped by more than two mph thanks to throwing a ball into a mattress a bunch. The southpaw was especially good across his final five starts of the season, pitching to a 2.48 ERA and holding opposing battings to a .606 OPS.

Of that course, that doesn’t mean we can dismiss his season prior to September. Means’s first five starts of the year saw him with an 8.59 ERA across just 14.2 total innings. When his velocity was at its absolute highest is when Means seemed to struggle most, but a “tough talk” with manager Brandon Hyde midseason seemed to turn things around.

Means is the least of the Orioles’ concerns on this pitching staff. It is who will come after him that likely keeps Hyde of general manager Mike Elias up at night.

For the longest time, the expectation was that Means would be backed up by rookies Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin. Well, at the time of this writing Kremer is experiencing a tough spring (6.32 ERA), but is still in the mix for a rotation spot, while Akin has already been optioned to begin the year. So, while both of them will almost certainly start at least a few games for the Orioles this season, they won’t be coming in the second or third games of the season.

Instead, the Orioles will turn to the unlikely duo of Matt Harvey and Bruce Zimmermann.

Harvey signed a minor league deal with the O’s in mid-February and was considered a long shot to make the rotation following a rocky stretch that saw him post an 11.57 ERA with the Royals in 2020 and a 7.09 ERA with the Angels the year before that. But Harvey has been better than expected this spring, flashing a mid-90s fastball and an ERA that starts with a “4.” An implosion could always be looming, but for now the former Cy Young candidate seems to have rediscovered a bit of his mojo.

It’s fair to say that Zimmermann has a different background. The 26-year-old made his big league debut for the hometown O’s last season, appearing in two games down the stretch. It was expected that he would be stretched out to starter innings this spring but more likely be competing for a role as a swingman out of the bullpen. Instead, he has tossed nine scoreless innings and allowed just one hit while striking out 10 over nine innings.

There is reason to doubt whether Harvey or Zimmermann can stick in the big league rotation all season. Harvey has very recently been a very bad pitcher at this level. Zimmermann is a rookie with a pitchability profile who requires perfect command to prosper. But both of them did well enough this spring to earn these spots, and they deserve at least a few trips through the rotation to hold onto them.

In his comments with media before Monday’s game against the Rays, Hyde said that Jorge López and Dean Kremer are rounding out the Orioles rotation.

Félix Hernández will not be breaking camp as a member of the club’s 26-man roster. The legendary right hander has not pitched in a game since March 16 due to discomfort in his throwing elbow. On Monday morning he opted out of his contract with the club. Hopefully he can get healthy and make one final attempt at wrapping up his big league career with some success.

Wade LeBlanc seemed like a possible rotation addition if only because the Orioles went to the trouble of re-signing him after he opted out of his minor league deal last week. This doesn’t guarantee him a spot on the Opening Day roster, but considering the Orioles have watched him pitch all spring it seems like a good bet.

The Orioles are angling to keep at least one of their Rule 5 picks. Tyler Wells has out-pitched Mac Sceroler. Wells has racked up 12 strikeouts and allowed just one run across nine innings of work. Sceroler has served up five runs this spring, but they all came in one disastrous outing that lasted just one-third of an inning. Even still, he has just three strikeouts in seven total innings. If any Rule 5 picks do stick around, they will be doing so likely to do so in a “long man” type of role rather than in the rotation proper.

Kremer is listed as the Orioles eighth-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, but that has not helped him this spring, where he has pitched 15.2 innings, has a 6.32 ERA and 1.596 WHIP against what grades out as Double-A talent on average. In a perfect world, Kremer would have lit the world on fire this spring and nabbed himself one of the top spots in this rotation, but it hasn’t happened. The O’s just showed with Akin that they aren’t scared to buck expectations and demote a promising young pitcher. It’s possible something similar happens with Kremer.

López, on the other hand, has been quite good. His 19.2 innings are more than anyone else on the team, and the fourth most of any pitcher in baseball this spring. Over those innings he has a .218 opponent’s batting average and allowed just six earned runs with a 1.22 WHIP.

Plutko has pitched as both a starter and reliever in each of the last three big league seasons. He has thrown nine innings this spring, but none of them has lasted longer than two innings. Plus, Elias said on Friday that he expects the righty to begin the year in the ‘pen. So, while it is quite possible he starts at some point this season, it won’t be right away.

The rotation is going to be a fluid situation for much of the season. The Orioles are going to need a lot of arms in order to survive the 162-game campaign. Every name mentioned here is probably going to start at some point this season. Elias already said over the weekend that he expects every 40-man pitcher and more to pitch for the Orioles at some point this season.

Plus, there is a fresh batch of young pitchers that are nearly ready for the bigs. Mike Baumann, Zac Lowther, and Alex Wells have all been reassigned to minor league camp, but there isn’t much more development to be done there. It’s possible —likely, even— that none of them are future aces, but they can help the Orioles pitching-starved big league squad and will do so relatively soon.

This article has been updated to reflect the announcement that López and Kremer have made the starting rotation.