Every team needs a spot starter at some point during the season. Doubleheaders are required, injuries occur, and sometimes a pitcher just needs an extra day of rest. Still, few managers have found themselves in a more difficult situation that Orioles’ skipper Brandon Hyde.
The Orioles entered the 2021 season with less than five proven starting pitchers. Dean Kremer played his way off the roster, while Bruce Zimmermann and John Means missed significant time with injuries. Facing a relentless schedule in the American League East, Hyde needed to get creative.
It’s easy to forget that Wade LeBlanc, Travis Lakins and Adam Plutko all started games for the Orioles this season. Baltimore rode a hot stretch from rookie Spenser Watkins, and Thomas Eshelman gave the team five abridged starts between June and July.
While the Orioles’ struggles have continued through the dog days of summer and into the month of September, Hyde and Mike Elias deserve credit for how they have managed the rotation down the stretch.
Baltimore claimed Chris Ellis from Tampa Bay last month and has done a nice job maximizing his potential. Ellis has flashed quality stuff in his first three games with Baltimore. The 28-year-old did not allow a hit in five innings at Yankee stadium last week.
The Orioles elected to push back Matt Harvey and John Means at the beginning of the week. Baltimore recalled Zac Lowther on Monday, and the lefty delivered the first quality start of his career against the Royals. Lowther limited the Royals to just three hits and struck out two.
The Orioles further delayed Harvey and Means starts on Tuesday. Instead, Baltimore rode a pair of rookies to a 7-3 victory against the Royals. Alexander Wells limited Kansas City to two runs in four innings, and Michael Baumann surrendered just two hits and an unearned run in his big league debut.
Hyde called the Orioles’ rotation a “day-to-day, series-to-series” type of thing earlier this week. Ellis has produced in his first three starts, but he has yet to pitch more than five innings. The Orioles’ bullpen has been overworked all season, and it suffered another blow when Jorge López left the game early on Labor Day.
Strong outings by the youngsters provided extra credibility to the move, but the Orioles deserve credit for pushing back Harvey and Means. It’s easy to justify providing extra rest for Means, the current staff ace who projects to play a significant role in the future, but the move also makes sense for Harvey.
Entering this week, Harvey led the Orioles with 123.1 innings pitched this season. The 32-year-old struggled in the first half, but the veteran grinded out start after start. Harvey has pitched better in the second half, and the former Met arguably served as the Orioles’ most reliable starter for a stretch after the break.
It’s also commendable that the Orioles are looking out for a guy that will be a free agent at the end of the season. It must be tempting to squeeze every last inning out of every available resource, but the Orioles are doing right by Harvey.
It’s also possible that Harvey could return next season. He would likely represent a depth signing for almost every team, but the veteran could provide value to Baltimore next season. Pitching coach Chris Holt may feel that he knows how to maximize production from the righty, and Harvey may feel comfortable in Baltimore. The Orioles could use Harvey to bridge the gap before the next wave of starters arrive in Baltimore.
Speaking of those young pitchers, the Orioles need to continue evaluating talent. With Grayson Rodriguez, Kyle Bradish and DL Hall all set to debut next season, Baltimore may need to make a decision on guys like Kremer, Lowther and Wells. Lowther turned in his best pro performance on Monday, and both he and Wells deserves opportunities to build on recent success.
Pitching prospects are never a guarantee. The Orioles need to sign at least one major-league caliber pitcher, and will have plenty of money to sign multiple guys. This year has demonstrated the grind that a 162-game season provides, and Baltimore must enter next year with more than two proven starters.
At this point of the season, there’s only so much that Hyde can do. The Orioles must send someone to the mound every day, but they also need to protect the arms already on the staff. Look for more starts from Lowther, Ellis and Wells as the team attempts to tread water in September.