When the Orioles acquired left-hander Cole Irvin from the Oakland Athletics in January, the pitcher they envisioned isn’t the one who ultimately showed up.
The O’s knew Irvin was no ace, but they thought they were getting an innings eater who could help mentor the less experienced starting pitchers, sort of a left-handed complement to Kyle Gibson, but younger and with more years of team control. Instead, Irvin — who’d made 30 or more starts and thrown 178+ innings in each of his two years for the Athletics — finished with 77 innings and 12 starts in his debut season for the Orioles, spending two stints in the minors and countless more in the bullpen while struggling to settle into any particular role.
On the field, Irvin could hardly have made a worse first impression. The Orioles’ #3 starter coming out of spring training, Irvin got blistered in his first three starts, giving up 15 runs, 17 hits, and eight walks while failing to get through five innings in any of them. The Orioles’ patience quickly ran out, and in a somewhat surprising move, they jettisoned Irvin not just from the rotation but from the major league roster, sending him to Triple-A Norfolk in mid-April. It was Irvin’s first trip to a minor league affiliate (other than on rehab) since 2019, when he was with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in the Phillies’ organization. It’s not the fate the O’s imagined would befall one of their veteran starters after only three outings, but Irvin was just that bad, struggling with his command in particular.
The minor league reset, fortunately, was just what the doctor ordered for Irvin. He got into a nice groove for the Tides, throwing five quality starts in seven outings and allowing two or fewer runs in six of them. Most encouragingly, his command was noticeably better, as the lefty allowed no more than one walk in any of his starts. Credit to Irvin for accepting his minor league assignment without complaint (as far as we know) and putting in the work to get better, even if he probably didn’t expect he’d be spending so much of the season away from the big league club.
In June, Irvin earned his way back into the Orioles’ rotation, taking the spot vacated by the recently demoted Grayson Rodriguez. His second stint was much kinder than his first. He posted a 2.66 ERA in his first five starts after his return, including his longest outing of the year, 6.1 strong innings in Minnesota on July 7. Still, Irvin was clearly in more of a swingman role than a full-fledged starter — interspersing his starts with a couple of relief appearances — and in late July, he was bumped back out of the rotation when Rodriguez returned from Norfolk. Such is life.
Irvin got one final crack at a starting spot in mid-August when the O’s shifted to a six-man rotation to protect their young arms. He made four more starts, tossing a pair of solid, five-inning outings before giving up four runs apiece in his next two. With that, the rotation was pared down to five again, sending Irvin back to the bullpen and eventually — when roster space was needed for fresh arms in September — another stint at Norfolk. Irvin wasn’t around to participate in either of the Orioles’ clinching celebrations on Sept. 17 or Sept. 28, and he wasn’t on the Birds’ Division Series roster. (In hindsight, perhaps they could have used him to chew up some relief innings, particularly in Game 2.) Irvin’s only taste of the playoffs came for Norfolk, where he pitched three scoreless innings against the Durham Bulls in the International League Championship Series.
It wasn’t the scenario the Orioles imagined when they traded infield prospect Darell Hernaiz for Irvin, five days before his 29th birthday. While Irvin struggled to find his footing in Baltimore, Hernaiz slashed .321/.386/.456 across two levels in the A’s system. It’s not to say Mike Elias’s thought process was wrong, but the early returns on that trade aren’t great.
Still, Irvin will leave a lasting legacy on the 2023 Orioles for one reason: the club’s delightful Homer Hose/Dong Bong celebration, with players taking a swig from the five-foot tube after hitting a dinger, was Irvin’s brainchild. It was the crafty (in more ways than one) lefty who bought the hose and jerry-rigged it with a funnel and orange and black tape, debuting the now-beloved dugout prop just days before he was sent to the minors for a month and a half. Those water-based festivities in turn spawned the creation of the ever-popular Bird Bath section at Camden Yards. So Orioles fans have Irvin to thank for all of the team’s coolest celebrations, even if Irvin himself wasn’t around to enjoy them for large stretches of the season.
Will he be on the 2024 Orioles? Most likely yes, at least to start the season. Irvin, who’s arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, has three more years of club control before he hits free agency. What complicates his situation in 2024 is that he’ll be out of options, so if he struggles again, he might find himself out of the organization entirely instead of back in the minors.
Chances are that Irvin will be on the Opening Day roster, hoping for a rebound season in his second year with the Birds. He’s never been an overpowering pitcher and never will be, but he could be useful at least as a long reliever, something the O’s often lacked in 2022. With the O’s chasing another division title, though, they likely won’t hesitate to part ways with Irvin if he fails to distinguish himself again.
2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías
Tomorrow: Ryan Mountcastle