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Will the Orioles continue to use future starters out the bullpen this season?

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A lack of pitching depth has forced Baltimore to utilize starting pitching prospects Zac Lowther and Alexander Wells in relief. Will the Orioles continue this strategy this season, and how will it impact their development?

MLB: JUN 29 Orioles at Astros Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Orioles’ need for pitching has been well documented this season. The club entered the season with a thin rotation and paid the price after a set of injuries and regressions. Baltimore rarely has more than two starters listed on its probable pitcher page, and attempting to anticipate the group of arms that can fill nine innings remains a challenge.

The return of staff ace John Means will help, but it will not solve the problem. Starters like Jorge López and Matt Harvey continuously leave the bullpen with a heavy workload. Unfortunately, the bullpen picture looks less clear by the day.

Hunter Harvey’s return to the injured list may have been predictable, but it is still disappointing. The hard-throwing righty appeared only nine times this season, so his absence does not serve the same type of blow as losing a guy like Means, but it is still one less option.

The Orioles recently transferred Travis Lakins Sr. to the 60-day injured list. Lakins does not possess the same potential as Harvey, but he did pitch in 24 games this season. Another candidate out the window.

With the trade deadline looming, the Orioles could stand to lose at least one more contributor from the bullpen. Paul Fry and Tanner Scott are both left-handed relievers with plenty of team control. While dealing away anyone from an already depleted bullpen would hurt, the returns yielded from shipping off Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens provide Mike Elias plenty of credibility.

The Orioles are saddled with one particularly interesting question for the remainder of the season. Will they continue to use young pitching prospects in relief?

The Orioles recalled Zac Lowther after placing Harvey on the injured list. MLB.com currently ranks Lowther as Baltimore’s ninth best prospect. Lowther is touted as a potential backend starter who has the potential to blossom into more. The lefty struggled in his only start of the season, but tossed a scoreless inning of relief on July 4.

The Orioles briefly utilized Alexander Wells in a relief role at the end of June. The Orioles promoted their 17th best prospect and sent him out for a pair of multi-inning efforts. Baltimore returned Wells to Norfolk to make room for Isaac Mattson and Spenser Watkins.

Both Wells and Lowther made sense for one reason— they were already on the 40-man roster. The pitchers needed to be protected from the Rule 5 draft last offseason.

Mike Elias was clear from the beginning of the year that if a player was on the 40-man, he would likely contribute at some point this season. The demand for innings, paired with unconditioned arms after a lost 2020, would require it.

It is unlikely that a pair of relief appearances in June will harm Wells’ development. Still, there is something to be said for consistency, and Lowther has not experienced much on the Norfolk shuttle.

Bruce Zimmermann has demonstrated enough to secure a major league spot when he returns from injury, while Mike Baumann may require an entire year in the minors after a slow start in 2021. Brandon Hyde said that Dean Kremer would likely experience an extended stay at Norfolk to work on his control, while Keegan Akin will probably be penciled into the rotation through July.

The Orioles have utilized piggyback starts to address inning limitations on the farm, but a scheduled relief appearance differs from working out of a major league bullpen. Baltimore may benefit from utilizing prospects that are already earmarked for the ‘pen.

Isaac Mattson is the first pitcher that comes to mind. Baltimore acquired Mattson in a deal that sent Dylan Bundy to the Angels. The Erie native profiles as a reliever long term, and Baltimore remains confident in his abilities despite an ugly ERA at Norfolk. Outside of a clunker at the end of May, Mattson only allowed an earned run in three of his other 10 appearances.

Watkins does not profile as a long term prospect, but the 28-year-old could allow Wells and Lowther more time to develop if he pitches with consistency. Baltimore elected to start Watkins over Lowther last night, but it is too early to tell if this represents a shift in strategy. Watkins started in a majority of his appearances in the minors.

The Orioles recently claimed Shaun Anderson from Texas in an effort to strengthen their pitching depth. Anderson has 19 career starts, but the 26-year-old could easily work out of the bullpen this season. Either way, he does not appear to be a long-term player in Baltimore’s rebuild.

Mattson and Anderson are both in the minors at the moment. Norfolk reliever Dusten Knight ended last week with a 1.00 ERA through 16 games, and it may be time to give the 30-year-old righty a look.

César Valdez returned from the IL, but he is not missing bats like he did last season. Thomas Eshelman could return to the bullpen as a swingman once Means rejoins the rotation.

Both Lowther and Wells have struggled at times at Norfolk this season. Wells turned in five shutout innings in his first start after being optioned, and Lowther delivered two solid starts before allowing five runs in his final start before being recalled.

There is no way of truly knowing whether a yo-yo approach will negatively impact their development. Still, the Orioles should not take any risks with a pair of players never guaranteed to pan out in the perfect situation. Baltimore should use a combination of Mattson, Anderson, Knight and future waiver claims to fill innings if it feels there is any chance the Norfolk shuttle is harming their young arms.