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Young Oriole starters have had a rocky transition to the majors

The O’s have auditioned a handful of pitching prospects this year but seen little in terms of results.

MLB: AUG 01 Orioles at Tigers
Orioles start Keegan Akin gets pulled from a game against the Tigers at Comerica Park in Detroit.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Behind the Orioles’ veteran trio that is currently anchoring the rotation, there’s been a lot of turnover. The following pitchers lead the team in games started: Jorge Lopez (23), Matt Harvey (22), and John Means (16). But there’s been a wide variety of pitchers filling in at the no. 4 and no. 5 spots in the rotation throughout the season.

As we eagerly await the arrival of top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, we’ve had time to observe another crop of young Oriole starters in their first exposure to the majors. The results aren’t great so far.

Growing pains are expected with young pitchers. And it’s hard to forget the cancellation of minor league baseball last year, which set everyone back. But it’s been rough!

For young pitchers trying to catch management’s eye, the best ERA of the bunch is Bruce Zimmermann at 4.98, but he’s been injured. Dean Kremer hasn’t sniffed the majors since June 24, when he allowed five walks and six earned runs in 0.1 innings. Keegan Akin has been ineffective as a starter and reliever, before and after his recent trip to the injured list. And Alexander Wells’ control has been non-existent in a handful of MLB appearances.

The four just mentioned are young players, in their mid-20s, whose arbitration clocks haven’t started yet. And they’ve all been optioned to the minors at least once this year. Two came to the Orioles via trade, one was a draft pick, and one was an international signing.

Let’s start with a quick look at a couple of starters who came up through the Orioles system.

The Orioles selected Keegan Akin 54th overall (second round) in the 2016 draft out of Western Michigan. He put up a 4.56 ERA in eight appearances with the O’s last season, but he’s taken a big step backward this year.

Akin is an exception to the Norfolk shuttle because he has been recalled only once this season. Although he did spend a bit more than a week on the injured list in late July. In 13 appearances between mid-May and mid-July, the 26-year-old has an 8.19 ERA, .332 BAA, and .387 BABIP. In three appearances since his return, he’s got an 8.53 ERA, .357 BAA, and .435 BABIP. Not good.

International signee Alexander Wells played ball in Australia before joining the O’s in 2015, and he happens to be the youngest of this bunch of pitchers at 24 years old. A control artist who averaged only 1.4 BB/9 through parts of five minor league seasons, Wells hasn’t been able to locate in the bigs.

During his brief time in Baltimore, Wells is averaging more than twice the number of walks he averaged in the minors. In six MLB appearances, including three starts, he’s allowing 4.3 BB/9.

In his most recent start on August 3, Wells allowed six earned runs in 2.1 innings against the Yankees. And after a relief appearance against Detroit a few days ago in which he allowed one run in one inning, his ERA is 7.71.

Wells been optioned to Norfolk three times this year, with the most recent coming just yesterday to make room on the roster for Tanner Scott.

Another young O’s pitcher who currently resides in the minors is Dean Kremer. Originally a 14th round draft pick of the Dodgers in 2016, Kremer came to the O’s system as part of the Manny Machado trade in July 2018.

Like Akin, Kremer got a cup of coffee in the form of four MLB starts last season and turned it into a 4.82 ERA (2.76 FIP). He’s one of the more perplexing cases for the O’s this year in terms of how lost he’s looked in the majors. He’s allowed way too many baserunners (1.61 WHIP and 4.3 BB/9) and has fallen victim to the long ball (2.5 HR/9) too.

The Tides have used Kremer as both a reliever and starter, but the results aren’t good at Triple-A either. In 10 total appearances, he’s got a 6.41 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.

Last but not least is Baltimore’s own Bruce Zimmermann, who was part of the Kevin Gausman trade return from Atlanta in 2018. The Braves originally drafted Zimmermann in the 5th round of the 2016 draft.

In limited big league exposure, Zimmermann is, relatively speaking, the most successful of this bunch. But he’s been hurt for a while now. In the midst of his second stint in the bigs this year, he hit the injured list on June 18 with left bicep tendinitis. He recently began a minor league rehab assignment.

On July 31 with Aberdeen, he went three innings and allowed 3 hits, two runs (one earned), two walks, and four strikeouts. In two rehab starts with the Norfolk Tides, Zimmermann has thrown a total of eight scoreless innings. Thankfully, it looks like he’ll be returning to the Birds’ rotation sooner than later.

All of the aforementioned pitchers are extremely inexperienced and taking their lumps in the majors. But they’re also controllable. According to Spotrac, all are making the major league minimum base salary of $570,500 — except for Kremer, who makes 2K more — adjusted for days spent on the major league roster.

And most of the pitchers in the group discussed have been optioned and recalled multiple times. The club has said they’re conserving innings and protecting arms. But you have to wonder how much the constant back-and-forth wears on them mentally. Sure, they’ve got a lot of baseball ahead of them, but there are other players in the system breathing down their necks too.

Remember, Mike Elias has only been here since November 2018, so all the guys mentioned previously were acquired by the old regime. The Orioles will get a couple more roster spots when rosters expand in September, so it’ll be interesting to see who gets recalled — whether it’s brand new guys, or guys from this list seeking another shot.