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Orioles’ rotation even more uncertain than anticipated

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Starting pitching was never a strength for the 2021 Orioles, but injuries and regression have taken the club to an all time low. What’s next for Baltimore?

Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Indians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Nobody expected much. The Orioles entered spring training with one definite starter and two other pitchers penciled into the rotation. Baltimore needed to find a few other arms to slot behind John Means, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin, but the choices were relatively apparent.

Jorge López was out of options and had started the year prior. Felix Hernandez or Matt Harvey could fill a token veteran role if healthy, and Wade LeBlanc was still hanging around just in case. Hey, nobody said they were quality options. I guess the best availability really is availability in a rebuild— more on that later.

Despite the anticipated template, the Orioles surprised many with their opening day roster. Means took his place atop the rotation, and Matt Harvey managed to stay intact, but things got a little dicey after that. Baltimore declined to carry Akin—originally a lock to break camp with the team—and slid rookie Bruce Zimmermann ahead of Kremer in the rotation. López did enough to justify a longer look every fifth day.

We all know how things unfolded from there. Means somehow managed to exceed expectations by meaning even more business than usual, and Matt Harvey had the MASN podcast calling him a legitimate trade chip one month into the season. Zimmermann earned his keep with some early success, but Kremer elicited a pair of demotions after trouble with his control.

Unfortunately, Means and Zimmermann were bit by the injury bug. Means likely will remain out until after the All-Star break with a left shoulder sprain, while Zimmermann is currently sidelined with left shoulder tendinitis.

These things happen. Major league players, and especially pitchers, get hurt. They miss starts, take trips to the injured list, and evoke lots of wood-knocking anytime the injury involves anything more than a blister. Still, it’s a bit baffling to see how far the rotation has fallen without the pair of lefties.

The Orioles expected Kremer to take a step forward after he impressed in three of four starts last season. A second-year slump is always a possibility, but Kremer regressed so far that the organization now feels he requires an extended stay in the minors.

Kremer may not have been injured, but this outcome feels far more dangerous. The 25-year-old has provided little indication that he has what it takes to pitch in the big leagues. All is not lost, but he cannot be viewed in the same light as Means or even Zimmermann this year. Kremer’s return, even in September, could provide a boost but he cannot be counted on this season.

Harvey and López are the only two holdovers from the opening day rotation. Regrettably, they posses the lowest ceilings of the starters from that group. The discussion around Harvey quickly shifted from “can he bring back a prospect in July?” to “they’ve got to cut him after this one, right?”

Harvey as a trade chip was always a pipe dream, but he has not worked deep enough into games to qualify as an innings eater. His 4.93 FIP is better than his 7.54 ERA, but he is taxing the bullpen at the same rate as Baltimore’s other options.

Speaking of those other options, that’s where the increased uncertainty enters. A pair of injuries and a stretch without an open date revealed just how far the Birds have fallen. Travis Lakins started as an opener last night after failing to make the team as a reliever back in April. Thomas Eshelman, a minor-league signing that struggled at Norfolk, now finds himself taking the ball every fifth day.

Eshelman, to his credit, shined in his debut. The 27-year-old stepped in as the best available option after Zimmermann went down and allowed just one run in 4.2 innings. Eshelman surrendered only three hits, walked one, and struck out three against Toronto.

Eshelman had the element of surprise on his side against the Jays, but Houston knew he was coming. The Astros torched their own former prospect to the tune of six runs on eight hits. However, Eshelman bounced back against his former organization. He managed to work three shutout innings, and exited in the fourth while still giving Baltimore a chance to win. For what it’s worth, the O’s did win 9-7 after tallying 15 hits.

Eshelman and the O’s were aided in that game by Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells. Wells notched a pair of strikeouts with the bases loaded to keep Baltimore in the game. He has transformed from being the second most heralded rule-fiver this season to drawing Miguel-Castro like calls to transition into a starting role.

The Orioles may not wish to tamper with Wells’ impressive rookie season by stretching out his arm, but the idea may become too tempting to pass up with a dire need on the mound. There is no reason for Lakins to work continuously as an opener, and Wells could shift to that role. There is always the “Buckism” regarding robbing Peter to pay Paul, and Baltimore’s bullpen would look extremely thin without Wells. The ‘pen could take another hit if Tanner Scott or Paul Fry do not completely pitch themselves out of trade consideration.

López has often been linked to an opener role due to his struggles after the fourth inning, but four solid frames are all Baltimore can ask for these days. The former Kansas City Royal will likely remain entrenched in the rotation for the remainder of the season.

The original outlook involved a few youngsters coming for rotation spots by this point in the season. Zac Lowther failed in his only start and has returned to Norfolk for stability purposes. Mike Baumann is behind schedule and struggling at Double-A. Alexander Wells made his debut in Buffalo and could receive a spot start at some point, but there does not appear to be a plan in place at the moment.

The Orioles are not giving up on Lowther or Baumman, but they fall into the same category as Kremer. The potential is there, but the Orioles cannot expect them to fill major league innings this season.

Tyler Young referred to the Orioles’ current product as unacceptable earlier this week. The Orioles did not anticipate injuries to Means and Zimmermann, did not see Kremer’s regression coming, and likely hoped a prospect or two would beat down the door by now. Whether the Orioles needed to put more in place to solidify the rotation is a different discussion, but things certainly seem more uncertain now than at any other point this season.