For the entire offseason, two things have seemed to be true about the Orioles. They could use more proven help in their starting rotation, and they’ve got more infield prospects than they could possibly make use of. These two truths have seemed to point to there eventually being a trade. That trade was struck on Thursday afternoon, as the O’s made a deal with the Oakland Athletics to bring lefty pitcher Cole Irvin plus minor league righty Kyle Virbitsky to Baltimore for infield prospect Darell Hernaiz.
Irvin turns 29 years old next week. He’s young in service time, though, as he will not reach arbitration eligibility until 2024 and will not become a free agent until after the 2026 season. The 6’4” lefty was originally drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round of the 2016 draft after his junior year at the University of Oregon. Philadelphia gave up on him prior to the 2021 season, trading him to Oakland for cash considerations this time two years ago.
The Athletics have gotten just a bit more than cash considerations back for Irvin after putting the pitcher in their starting rotation for the past two seasons. Irvin’s started 62 games between the 2021 and 2022 seasons, combining to throw 359.1 innings. That’s well shy of 200 innings per year, but hitting 180 is pretty good these days.
Okay, so the Orioles finally traded for a pitcher. A big question now will be, is he actually any good? I will admit that before this trade crossed my Twitter feed, I had absolutely no thought whatsoever about Cole Irvin, good or bad. I would not have even recognized his name as an MLB player if you randomly said it to me. And looking at how he pitched last year does not do much to increase my excitement level.
Irvin did do a good job of eating innings over the last two seasons, with the downside that he was below-average in park- and league-adjusted stats like ERA+. Irvin’s 3.98 ERA from the 2022 season looks fine compared to some of what we saw in the O’s rotation, but that’s with the benefit of having his home games in Oakland. Irvin had a 3.06 home ERA and 5.26 on the road, with significant homer problems on the road. It added up to a below-average 96 ERA+; 100 is average and higher is better. “Slightly better than Jordan Lyles and Tyler Wells” is not what I was looking for.
Baseball Reference WAR still sees some value in this kind of innings-eater, with Irvin coming in at a 2.1 WAR for the 2022 season. FanGraphs WAR was a bit less for him at 1.4. If the O’s have found a 2+ WAR pitcher for the next four seasons in this deal, there will not be much griping about it. Few teams will say no to a 2+ WAR starting pitcher, especially with what the Orioles had in the rotation last year. If 1.4 is the best he does and he’s not much better than the well of prospects and recent ex-prospects, well, that might inspire a bit more griping.
Over the course of this offseason, the Orioles have brought on some players who had underwhelming numbers but reason to believe in a possible bounce-back based on Statcast data. Irvin is in a different category here. His Statcast page for the 2022 campaign has blue (bad) for nearly everything except for walk rate, many of which are 25th percentile or worse. In spin rate, which is the hip stat of recent years, Irvin’s fastball is 4th percentile. 4th!
I would say it’s safe to guess that the Orioles have a plan to try to improve on some of this, especially the road struggles. “Throw him in front of Walltimore half the time and hope for the best” would be some Dan Duquette-ass thinking about starting pitchers, not that Duquette’s teams had Walltimore on their side.
Mike Elias has yet to give us any reason to doubt him in this way. It’s going to be interesting - hopefully in a good way - to see how Elias’s first real “trade a prospect for an MLB player” trade shakes out. This won’t be the last one he makes, although it sure seems like it will be the last one before the 2022 campaign begins.
Virbitsky, 24, is notable for being listed at 6’7”. There’s always a fascination nowadays with seeing what can be made of tall guys. He was a 17th round pick by Oakland in 2021 out of Penn State and pitched up to the High-A level in 2022. Virbitsky’s strikeout and walk rates are interesting - he whiffed 140 batters in 126.1 innings last season, and only walked 30.
That’s a 4.67 strikeout/walk ratio, which is worth paying attention to. He might be ticketed for Bowie based on his age. If he continues pitching like that at Double-A, we might all be learning how to consistently spell Virbitsky correctly before much longer.
On the other side of this, Hernaiz is a prospect I found interesting and wondered if he’d be on the verge of a breakout over the course of this season. The O’s fifth round pick from Elias’s first draft in 2019 was something of a slow riser until last year, when he played his way to three levels.
Between Delmarva, Aberdeen, and Bowie, Hernaiz hit .273/.341/.438 in what was his age 20 season. He’s a guy I had my eye on as a potential top 100 prospect this time next year. If I end up being right, that’s going to be a lot less exciting than it would have been without this trade.
A plus in this trade is that, though the Orioles gave up a player in Hernaiz who is interesting, they did not part with any of their high-minors infield talent. Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, and Jordan Westburg, all of whom have reached Triple-A, are still around. Those guys are all higher-ranked in recent surveys of the Orioles farm than Hernaiz. He was #16 in MLB Pipeline’s list to close out 2022, and #20 on the FanGraphs ranking.
Giving up only one mid-range prospect is not risking a lot. The Orioles haven’t lost a ton of depth in making this trade, nor have they given up a currently high-rated prospect. They could have probably gotten a pitcher with a better track record if they’d done so, but it would have hurt more than this trade currently does.
With Irvin in the fold, it’s worth wondering how the rotation will shake out to start the season. Kyle Gibson was the “big” free agent signing with the aim of having a veteran anchor in there. Irvin’s spot is probably in ink. Grayson Rodriguez is also automatic, unless the Orioles brain trust wants to make me very grumpy. Dean Kremer should have an inside track after how he pitched last year. That’s four names and we haven’t even gotten into Austin Voth, Kyle Bradish, Wells, or (if you’re really optimistic about him) DL Hall. There will be decisions to be made as camp rolls along.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Irvin, the Orioles designated lefty reliever Darwinzon Hernandez for assignment. His tenure on the roster lasted 15 days. Maybe he will clear waivers and be sent to Norfolk. I won’t lose any sleep over whether or not this happens.