It comes as no surprise to Orioles fans that the team’s starting pitching has, in general, been quite bad through the first two months of the season. After all, the front office took a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to assembling the group in spring training. The result has been a unit that routinely struggles to face a lineup more than once and saddles its bullpen with a hefty workload on a near nightly basis.
Orioles starters have a league-worst 6.17 ERA in the month of May, and the 89 innings they have thrown are more than just one team (Mets) in that same time frame. Those numbers include the performance of John Means, who alone has thrown 21.1 innings this month and has a 1.69 ERA over three starts, one of which was a no-hitter. Without him, this group could be breaking records for futility.
It seems like the end of April was midnight for Matt Harvey, because he has turned into a pumpkin ever since. His 8.85 ERA in May is double what he put up in the season’s first month. Hitters are teeing off with a .576 slugging percentage and his status has changed from trade chip to barely holding onto a roster spot.
Fortunately for Harvey, and unfortunately for anyone who wants to watch a successful Orioles team, a more capable alternative is yet to reveal itself.
Jorge López continues to flash impressive stuff, but can quickly lose the strike zone and flame out in the middle innings. Bruce Zimmermann’s best outing of the season came in a 5.2-inning relief appearance while struggling in a more traditional starter’s role. And while Dean Kremer has been much better in May than April (4.74 ERA vs. 8.40 ERA), he isn’t missing as many bats and his 6.89 FIP this month hints at some smoke and mirrors at play.
On top of that, there are no clear prospects to turn to either. Zac Lowther’s first big league start went poorly (2.1 innings, seven hits, seven runs, two walks, three strikeouts), and he has struggled a bit in his first two outings with Norfolk (9.45 ERA). Alexander Wells has done no better with his 10.45 ERA in three starts, Keegan Akin is being used in long relief for the moment, and Mike Baumann is still working his way back from elbow discomfort, although he should be back in Triple-A before June.
If the Orioles hope to find help elsewhere within the organization, they may need to look outside of the 40-man roster.
Spenser Watkins is a 28-year-old right-hander that the O’s signed as a minor league free agent in February. The former Tigers farmhand has done a nice job in four starts for the Tides this year, holding opposing hitters to a .194 batting average and striking out 18 batters over 20 innings while maintaining a 3.15 ERA.
Or they could really shoot for the moon and promote DL Hall, like Jim Bowden suggested for The Athletic a couple of weeks ago. The 22-year-old is making short work of Double-A hitters and has been flirting with triple digits on his fastball all month long. Not to mention his long hair, short pants, and mint green glove could substantially increase the club’s cool factor.
OK, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Hall is not going to be pitching in Baltimore anytime soon. The Orioles are taking their time with their young pitchers. Hall is young, coming off of a year without a minor league season and has pitched just 16 innings above A-ball. He has looked great, but it’s reasonable for the organization to let him develop a bit longer.
Getting Watkins a look in the big leagues is more realistic. But in order to do that Mike Elias would need to make room on the 40-man roster. That’s something he will need to do again in just a week’s time once Hunter Harvey is ready to return from the 60-day IL.
Making room on the 40-man isn’t difficult. The Orioles have already done it a couple of times this season (DFA’ing Jay Flaa and Rio Ruiz). But it is a hurdle, and it’s one that is only worth going over if you believe the addition is going to provide more value than the player being removed. Are we sure that Watkins will do better than someone like Brandon Waddell or Shawn Armstrong or one of the two Rule 5 picks?
It’s a gamble; an admittedly small gamble, but one nonetheless. And it is one that the Orioles don’t need to make right now unless they feel they have exhausted existing options.
It feels like a cliché, but it is true that the Orioles starters, as a group, should only improve from here. López, Harvey, and Zimmermann all have ERAs that are higher than their xFIP in the month of May. In the cases of Harvey and Zimmermann, it is almost a three-run difference between the two numbers. That doesn’t mean the rotation is actually “good,” but it can be serviceable.
Like it or not, the goal for the pitching staff this season was not to lead the Orioles back to the playoffs. The goal was to survive. If they stay on their current trajectory, they will not accomplish that goal. But if they return to the modest level of performance they had in April, and pitch to what the peripherals suggest they should, then things will get better for this unit.
The same can be said for the group of Lowther, Baumann, Wells, and Akin. There might not be an ace in the bunch. But it’s far too early to assume that none of them can contribute in a meaningful way to the 2021 staff. They may need a bit more time, but at least one of them will make an impact in Baltimore sometime soon.