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The Orioles are committed to protecting their young starters

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Dean Kremer’s option to the alternate site showed the Orioles’ commitment to limiting innings. How far will Baltimore go to protect their young starters?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles caught many by surprise last weekend when they optioned Dean Kremer to the alternate site. While everyone anticipated some form of roster shuffling this season, Kremer was not the first pitcher expected to leave the rotation. The fact that it came after Kremer’s most encouraging start of the season— 4.2 innings, 1 run, 6 K—only added fuel to the fire.

Orioles’ manager Brandon Hyde extinguished a majority of the concerns by pointing out Baltimore’s two scheduled days off this week. Baltimore could handle utilizing a four man rotation, and the team could always benefit from an extra reliever. They recalled righty Cole Sulser for this stretch but would eventually welcome Kremer back to the rotation with open arms. Pretty cut and dried, right?

Not so fast.

Hyde made a point to focus on Kremer’s age, and that the organization would be monitoring his innings more than most. “Dean’s the youngest of the group, and so we’re going to give him the least amount of innings.”

That is a completely reasonable statement. Hyde and Mike Elias were very candid regarding their intent to protect everyone on the pitching staff after a 60-game season last year. Still, optioning a player who many expected to be the second most reliable pitcher in the rotation will turn some heads.

This came not long after Keegan Akin was left off the Opening Day roster. Kremer and Akin were expected by many to back up de facto ace John Means toward the front of Baltimore’s rotation. Neither are currently on the roster 17 games into the season.

The timing of Kremer’s option could reveal a peak at the Orioles’ strategy for the rest of the season. Bruce Zimmermann may be a year older than Kremer, but he has far fewer major league innings under his belt. So why did the Orioles select Kremer over Zimmermann?

The most obvious answer points to performance. Zimmermann delivered back-to-back quality starts to start the season and worked five more his last time out. Kremer has yet to work more than five innings.

On one hand, that makes Zimmermann in more need of rest. But the Orioles simply cannot afford to part with their second most reliable pitcher right now. An inning or two from Sulser will add some depth to the bullpen, but Baltimore still needs someone not named John Means to deliver six frames on a consistent basis.

Zimmermann looks the part so far, but major league hitters make adjustments. The Orioles can ride Zimmermann until he begins to falter, and then option him later in the season to limit his innings.

Hyde suggested Kremer will return “soon,” but stopped short of saying exactly when. Baltimore could provide Akin or even Adam Plutko an opportunity to start.

Jorge López has yet to toss more than five frames, but that falls on him. López continues to dazzle early in games but has yet to demonstrate that he can handle batters the third time through the lineup.

It’s fair to assume that the Orioles’ brass would prefer if Alexander Wells, Mike Baumann and Zac Lowther got game reps on the farm before a promotion. The trio has not pitched in a regular season game since 2019, which makes an MLB debut a tough ask this early on. Expect Baltimore to let the prospects build up their arms before replacing another starter later in the season.

Matt Harvey has not worked late into a game this season, but the Orioles likely would not stop him. Harvey will either pitch well enough to be dealt at the deadline or could be designated for assignment later this season.

That brings us to the only Baltimore starter left in the conversation. John Means threw 155 innings in 2019 before tallying just 43.2 last season. The 27-year-old plays a veteran role, but he’s under team control until 2025. Do the Orioles have an obligation to protect their best pitcher?

Means has used his changeup to consistently fool batters, and his fastball has surprised some folks. I’m not suggesting the Orioles place an innings cap on their number one starter, but do not be surprised if Hyde pulls Means after only five frames in the dog days of summer.

Baltimore needed 10 starting pitchers to navigate through 60 games last year, which suggests double digits are a lock this season. Elias expressed plans to have minor league pitchers piggyback off each other in games, but the strategy is a bit more complex in the pros. Kremer’s option was the first domino to fall, but it certainly will not be the last.