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The struggles of young Orioles pitchers have been disappointing, but not entirely surprising

It was expected (hoped) that some members of the O’s young staff would take significant steps forward this season. That has not happened.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to say, in hindsight, that the Orioles did not do enough to address their lack of starting pitching coming into the season. A lengthy injury to staff ace John Means, and the repeated poor performances from Jorge López and Matt Harvey have made that painfully obvious. But it is also worth noting that there was an expectation entering the year that many of the club’s younger, less experienced arms were ready to take on a significant big league workload. To this point, that has not been the case.

The Orioles have asked a rookie pitcher to start on the mound 35 times this year, and they have thrown 150.2 innings in those starts, both metrics rank sixth in MLB. Their ERA in those starts is 6.81, the fifth-worst among rookie starting groups in baseball, and they have posted a 0.0 fWAR as a unit.

Those numbers include contributions from 28-year-old rookie Spenser Watkins, who was a career minor leaguer that nearly accepted a job as a high school baseball coach prior to the O’s giving him a deal to pitch in Norfolk this summer. He has been great (1.93 ERA) over his two starts, but it’s pretty clear that he was not expected to be a part of the team’s rotation at any point. He has been thrust into the role out of extreme need.

Other than Watkins’ pair of outings, the only Orioles rookie who has impressed in any sense of the word has been Bruce Zimmermann, and it’s not like we are talking about Rookie of the Year type numbers here. As a starter, the local lefty has a 5.17 ERA, 4.47 xFIP, and 0.4 fWAR over 11 starts this season. He also turned in a 5.2-inning appearance out of the bullpen on May 16 against the Yankees in which he gave up just one run while striking out six.

Zimmermann’s stats are fine. On most teams, they are probably good enough to make him a fifth starter or maybe a spot starter that regularly makes multi-inning appearances out of the bullpen. For the Orioles, he has been their second-best starter this season. But a bicep injury has kept him on the shelf since mid-June, which has left more innings for his fellow rookies to take on.

Back in spring training, Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin looked like favored candidates to earn a rotation spot heading into the regular season. As mentioned at the top, it’s not like the Orioles had many alternative options in camp. Beyond Means, it was a bunch of over-the-hill veterans (Harvey, Félix Hernández, Wade LeBlanc) looking for one more day in the sun, and then that batch of rookies.

It didn’t work out that way. Akin was poor in nine spring innings and got himself optioned to Norfolk at the end of March. Kremer wasn’t much better down in Sarasota, but showed enough promise to earn a back-end spot. Since then, both of them have been promoted and demoted a couple of times, and the results at all levels have been bad.

Kremer owns a 7.25 ERA over 49.2 innings pitched in the big leagues this season. Known as a strikeout artist during his climb up the minor league level, the big righty is striking out just 8.15 batters per nine while walking half that many in the majors. Home runs have also been a killer; he’s served up 14 already. His Triple-A numbers are just as bad: 7.20 ERA in 25 innings, although he has seen his strikeouts rebound to 12.24 per nine innings.

It’s a similar story for Akin. The Orioles have used him out of the bullpen a bit, and he has made just one Triple-A appearance, but the statistics don’t look great no matter how you slice it. His MLB ERA is 8.19 over 48.1 total innings. O’s manager Brandon Hyde was particularly critical of Akin earlier this week following a poor start, commenting that pitch selection was “poor” and Akin failed to “miss many barrels.”

The Orioles have dug even deeper into the prospect pool following the struggles of Akin and Kremer. They have recalled Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells a couple of times each. Both pitchers were in Double-A back in 2019, so this season has represented their debuts in not only the big leagues but also Triple-A. Neither has been particularly impressive, although Wells has been better than the struggling Lowther.

At a certain point, a team has to pump the brakes on promoting somewhat intriguing talent and simply stop the bleeding. That’s why Watkins is currently in the rotation. It’s why Thomas Eshelman is sticking around. The Orioles don’t view them as long-term solutions, but they can eat innings while some of the younger guys figure out whatever it is that has constantly plagued them.

To put a somewhat positive spin on things, it should be said that while it would be nice if one or two of Kremer, Akin, Lowther, or Wells turned into viable long-term rotation candidates, it was likely never the expected outcome. Kremer has the best chance of the bunch given his pitch arsenal, but it’s not as if he was some can’t-miss prospect that was viewed as a top-of-the-rotation talent. He lives on command, something that has gone missing this season. Hopefully he finds it again.

Fortunately, they all have more time to sort things out. They will get more chances, and there are some peripheral numbers on each of them that suggest there is room for improvement without the need to drastically change what they are doing. But expectations should be appropriately tempered.

The future hopes of a star-studded rotation remain on the backs of Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. They are the two that the industry regards as upper-echelon arms with all-star upside. If both of them falter in 2022 and beyond, then we can panic.