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Examining the Orioles’ internal starting pitching candidates

The loss of staff ace John Means was further complicated by Chris Ellis’ shoulder inflammation. When will the prospects arrive, and who can pitch in the meantime?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a headline that belongs in December. Who on the active roster can take the ball every fifth day? Unfortunately, the Orioles are pondering the notion 17 games into the season.

Free agency has come and gone. The Orioles signed Jordan Lyles but went to camp with three question marks after Lyles and John Means. Now, with Means sidelined for the year, the question remains more prevalent than ever.

The problem doubled in size when Chris Ellis left Sunday’s game before recording an out. The Orioles placed Ellis on the 10-day injured list with right shoulder inflammation and recalled Alexander Wells.

An even swap? Not so fast. O’s’ skipper Brandon Hyde said Wells would be a candidate to start if he was not needed in long relief against the Yankees. The Orioles’ lack of pitching depth, paired with an abridged spring training, has left Baltimore scrambling to fill nine innings on a routine basis. Wells was summoned into mop up duty last night at Yankee Stadium.

The Orioles converting Tyler Wells into a starter only complicates the problem. Baltimore giving Wells a crack at the rotation is completely reasonable and his 1.875 WHIP and 6.69 FIP do not paint a clear picture. Still, it creates a routine need for long relief.

Dean Kremer strained his oblique warming up before making his season debut. The 26-year-old appeared primed for a bounce-back opportunity but could miss an additional two weeks. Kremer will be a candidate to start after a rehab outing or two, but his 7.55 ERA from last year does not conjure images of a knight in shining armor.

It remains to be seen whether Baltimore will move Mike Baumann or Keegan Akin from their current role in the bullpen. Akin has limited opponents to two runs in 11.2 innings and his 0.600 WHIP compliments a 7/2 K/BB ratio quite nicely. Akin mentioned that he “could get used to” coming out of the bullpen and that he “liked it a lot” after a successful season debut against the Rays.

Baumann tossed 2.1 scoreless innings against the Brewers but has allowed at least one run in his last three outings. The 6-foot-4 righty ranks as the Orioles’ 13th best prospect but his power fastball and injury history fits the mold of a converted reliever. Baumann’s arm is not built up to throw five or six innings right now anyway.

Bruce Zimmermann has taken his opportunity and run with it this season, but that still leaves the club with Lyles, Zimmermann, Tyler Wells and Spenser Watkins. The Orioles wouldn’t dream of returning Jorge López to the rotation after his success in late-inning relief, so Alexander Wells appears to be the favorite.

If it feels ridiculous that we’re over 400 words deep and I have yet to mention Kyle Bradish or Grayson Rodriguez, well, I understand. The Orioles have two pitchers that appear worthy of a call up tomorrow.

Bradish, Baltimore’s 10th best prospect, holds a 2-0 record and 1.20 ERA in 15 innings at Norfolk this season. The 25-year-old was named the International League Pitcher of the Week earlier this month and appears more than capable of facing Triple-A hitters after tossing 86.2 innings with Norfolk last year.

Everybody knows Rodriguez. The best pitching prospect in baseball allowed three runs in the first last night but still holds just a 2.45 ERA. He’s blowing batters away and has demonstrated impressive control so far this year. Rodriguez did not pitch in Triple-A last season.

Tyler Young wrote earlier this week that the Orioles’ long-promised youth movement is closer than ever. D.L. Hall is set to rehab with Aberdeen this week and it’s still completely reasonable to expect Hall, Bradish and Rodriguez to debut this year.

Still, Mike Elias and the Orioles appear set on letting their top pitching prospects finish the year in Baltimore. With all three facing some type of common-sense usage limit, a premature debut would prevent any of the three from completing the year on the active roster. Bradish appears to be knocking on the door, but Elias could require him to break it down before he makes it to Baltimore.

There is more than one way to develop a pitching prospect. Bradish, Hall and Rodriguez do not need to check every box on a list to make it to the show. There is also no reason that the trio need to end the year pitching in Baltimore. Health is never guaranteed and there are certainly opportunities available right now.

Still, we wait.

With the future close, but still on hold, Alexander Wells and Akin represent the most likely candidates to fill in with a rehabbing Kremer on deck. If the wait for prospects is bumming you out, remember we still have Matt Harvey on a prorated salary!