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Taking stock of the Orioles’ starting pitching situation

With the off-season nearing its end, the O’s rotation isn’t looking much different from where it concluded 2022. But it’s not all disappointing.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Orioles entered the offseason knowing that they needed more from their starting rotation in 2023 if they were going to take a significant step forward. The unit was better than anticipated this past season thanks to a breakout performance from Dean Kremer, the steadying hand of Jordan Lyles, and surprisingly solid work from Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins. They were competitive night-to-night, but they were also buoyed by a stellar bullpen. Improvements were needed.

Urgency for such upgrades was increased because the O’s are likely to be without John Means for at least the start of the 2023 season. The team’s Opening Day starter for each of the last two seasons underwent Tommy John surgery on April 27, 2022. The typical recovery period for the injury is 12-18 months, and a recent data point is Tyler Glasnow’s return to a big league mound last year, about 14 months after his surgery. The Orioles have surely been in constant contact with Means and are well aware of his recovery progress, but they won’t rush him or give him a massive workload out of the gate.

Mike Elias and the Orioles front office have made some changes to the rotation this offseason. Their first move was a no-brainer: adding Grayson Rodriguez to the 40-man roster. One of the top prospects in baseball, Rodriguez had to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. It’s a move that would have happened last summer if the 23-year-old hadn’t gotten hurt. The second was the signing of veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson to a one-year, $10 million deal, essentially filling the void left by Lyles, who is now with the Kansas City Royals.

Rodriguez may be the biggest wild card on the roster. His talent is immense, and it is entirely possible he acclimates quickly to the big leagues, giving the Orioles the top-of-rotation starter they need. But he’s also a rookie, one that threw a total of 75.2 innings in the minors last season amidst a lat strain. Expectations should be tempered as a result.

Assuming Gibson and Rodriguez are healthy, they do feel like locks for the rotation along with Kremer. The 26-year-old was the Orioles’ best starting pitcher last year. Although his season was delayed by an oblique injury, he bounced back to post a 3.23 ERA over 125.1 innings. Some projection systems think there is even more upside to find.

Beyond those three, things get a bit messier.

Kyle Bradish was perhaps the most volatile member of the staff. He took his lumps in May and June (8.03 ERA over 40.1 innings), had a lengthy IL stay, and returned to have a 3.28 ERA over his final 13 starts, including two 8+ inning, shutout starts against the World Series champion Astros.

Tyler Wells’ move to the rotation last season was a success. He held together an injury-riddled rotation in the first half of the season and ended up with a solid 4.25 ERA over 103.2 total innings. Then an oblique injury cost him the entire month of August, followed by shoulder discomfort that ended his season in mid-September. Perhaps those sorts of knocks push him back to the ‘pen.

DL Hall is viewed as one of the better young left-handed talents in the sport, the big league rotation could use a southpaw, and the Orioles have always been developing him as a starter. But there is no question that he struggled last season, both in the minors and the majors. His performance in the spring could be more consequential than anyone else on the roster.

Voth, Watkins, Bruce Zimmermann, and even Mike Baumann represent the “depth” part of the group. In a perfect scenario, the Orioles would probably prefer each of them to serve as a long man in the bullpen or as an insurance policy in Triple-A Norfolk. But a spot start by any one of them feels better than the options the team had just a couple of seasons ago.

If Elias is to be believed, the Orioles have continued to pursue starting options this winter. At the Winter Meetings, the GM said that the team had video calls with “eight or so” starters even after signing Gibson. But so far, nothing has come of that, and the only free agent arm still available that the O’s have been connected to is Michael Wacha.

The possible edition of Wacha would be a very slight upgrade on what the Orioles currently have as far as in-house options at the back of the rotation. But he, or someone similar, would not exactly elevate the group. At this point in the year, the only addition that could do that would come via trade.

Pablo López, one of the few openly available starting pitchers available on the trade market, would have fit the bill. The righty will be 27 on Opening Day, has two full years of team control remaining, and just had a standout season in which he threw 180 innings, struck out nearly a batter per inning, and had a 3.75 ERA/3.71 FIP. But the Marlins dealt him to the Twins last week, so the Orioles will have to look elsewhere.

A few other potentially available names that would be even more exciting than López—and in some cases more expensive—are Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, San Diego’s Blake Snell, Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, and (don’t laugh!) Los Angeles’ Shohei Ohtani.

Swinging a deal for any one of them at this point in the year is tough to envision though. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in three weeks. Rosters are largely set and teams are running out of time to find adequate replacements for anyone dealt. Moves on the fringes of a big league roster are possible, but trading a key part of the rotation is tricky.

What the Orioles seem more likely to do is stand pat and see how the first half of the season shakes out. That allows time for a few things to happen that could be to their benefit.

One is the previously mentioned recovery of Means. Taking off the orange-tinted glasses for a moment, we can agree that the lefty is not a surefire ace, but he’s good. What he looks like after Tommy John could impact the type of pitcher the Orioles pursue.

Next is the development of the middle infielders. Gunnar Henderson will be a big league fixture. But then there is Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, Connor Norby, and Jackson Holliday. We won’t see Holliday in Baltimore this year, but how he performs in the first two or three months could tell us how soon he makes it up in 2024, and that in turn informs what the team wants to do with the others. Any trade for a worthwhile pitcher is likely to include at least one of them.

And of course it allows the major league season to take place. If the Orioles are as good as they seemed last season, then there is even more reason to make a big splash on the trade market. Some teams that appear to be playoff contenders right now won’t be by late July. That could open up even more possible trades for pending free agents or even players under team control through 2024.

Admittedly, some of this thinking is rather backwards. If the Orioles went and got a pitcher now (or back in December) then they would be set up far better to compete in the summer. Sure, waiting has some benefits, but it also has obvious risks of potentially torpedoing a season of Henderson and Adley Rutschman because the rotation is, once again, lacking.

As things stand, the Orioles feature a rotation with upside and depth. Rodriguez has a good chance to be a Rookie of the Year candidate. Kremer sure looked like the real deal last year. Bradish was great after his IL stint. And there is plenty of talent in Hall’s clearly erratic left arm. But it’s also risky, lacking in experience, predictability, and known production. In that way, not much has changed since the 2022 season ended nearly four months ago.