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Orioles positional preview: Rotation

Aside from John Means, there’s not much to bank on among Orioles starting pitchers as the season is set to begin. But by season’s end, that could change.

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

How will the Orioles’ rotation look this year? It depends on when you’re referring to.

In the immediate, “right now” sense? Blecch. Baltimore had the worst pitching staff in all of baseball last year, and not much has changed to suggest that 2022 will be all that better.

Later in the season, however? Well, things could get interesting.

Start with the present. The Orioles didn’t do much to shake up a rotation that was one of baseball’s dreariest, one that turned in a quality start 19 percent of the time (second-worst in MLB to Pittsburgh’s 15 percent) and that had an average game score of 44 and pitched an average of 4.5 innings per start (both worst in MLB). There was a notable departure (though maybe not for long?), as Matt Harvey is gone after going 6-14 with a 6.27 ERA.

John Means is back as the bright side in all of this. The 28-year-old lefty had an up-and-down season that ended at 6-9 with a 3.62 ERA, and though he slumped in the middle of the season, he found his form again at the end, pitching to a 2.78 ERA over six starts before getting roughed up in his final outing. His ERA+ of 126 was right near the 131 he posted during his All-Star season in 2019.

The rotation’s newcomer, Jordan Lyles, is poised to be the No. 2 option. He bounced back from a miserable 2020 season with Texas to go 10-13 for the Rangers last year, posting an ERA of 5.15 in the process. In 2019 Lyles was 12-8 with a 4.15 ERA while pitching for Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, so there is a history of modest success that the Orioles are hoping Lyles will recapture during his time at Camden Yards. His 180 innings last season were sixth in the American League; if nothing else, the Orioles can expect Lyles to get the ball on a regular basis.

After Lyles, it gets familiar again. Tyler Wells is poised to start as the third starter in his second big league season, fresh off of going 2-3 with a 4.11 ERA last season in 44 appearances. Those appearances all came in relief, however, and the 6-foot-8, 27-year-old hasn’t officially started a game since 2018 in Double-A. Fortunately, his initial trials have looked promising, as he’s posted a 2.35 ERA across three spring training starts with seven strikeouts in 7.2 innings.

Bruce Zimmermann and Dean Kremer will both likely be in the rotation as well after flopping in their campaigns a season ago. Zimmermann went 4-5 with a 5.04 ERA in 14 outings (13 starts) last season, but he’s struggled in spring training this season to the tune of a 7.88 ERA in eight innings. Kremer was a disaster in 2021 after an encouraging 2020, making only one appearance after a June demotion to Triple-A and finishing 0-7 with a 7.55 ERA.

Jorge Lopez is a candidate to end up back in the rotation considering the 25 starts he had last year and the 58 he’s made in his career, though his performance last season (3-14, 6.07 ERA) hardly screams that he should be getting the ball to start games. He also had a 2.16 ERA in eight relief appearances, so he may have found a permanent home in the bullpen. Keegan Akin could also get starts after making 17 last year, but like Lopez, his performance (2-10, 6.63) doesn’t exactly grease the skids for him to return to the rotation.

So that, for the most part, is the rotation as of right now: John Means and a bunch of question marks.

Going forward, however, the Orioles’ rotation could be very intriguing.

Grayson Rodriguez, the team’s No. 2 prospect and a dominant hurler so far in his minor league career, is waiting in the wings, and so is D.L. Hall, the No. 5 prospect who gave fans a slight taste of what might be coming soon by striking out two of the three batters he faced in spring training. Both pitchers, each one a former first-round pick, has an ETA of this season according to the Orioles’ MLB Pipeline page, and while the chances are low that they will start the season with the big club, that debut is looking like it will happen this season.

If, and when, that happens, the rotation goes from being an eyesore to being, short of catcher, the most intriguing area of the team.

If Baltimore is starting a rotation with Means, Rodriguez and Hall a few months from now, then that becomes must-watch, must-follow material for Orioles fans. If our wildest dreams come true and Rodriguez and Hall handle major league hitters the way they’ve handled batters in the minors, then this MLB-worst rotation will have in less than a year become a strength.

If - more realistically - Rodriguez and Hall are taking some lumps as they acclimate to the highest level of competition...well, that’s still a major story going on, as their development is as big a part of the much-anticipated turnaround as anything.

For now? The pitching rotation is looking pretty bleak in Baltimore these days.

But stay tuned, because by all indications, change is coming sooner rather than later.