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Thinking through the Orioles potential playoff rotation

There are still a few weeks left in the regular season. The Orioles will need to spend that time evaluating their rotation options for what will hopefully be a deep postseason run.

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

A spot in the playoffs is not yet guaranteed for the Orioles, but it’s getting close. So it’s reasonable—for the fans, at least—to look forward to those potential October games and wonder, “Who exactly is gonna pitch?”

That question could be a contributing factor behind the Orioles’ move to a six-man rotation earlier this month. The presumed reason for the switch was to reduce the workload for the team’s less experienced starters. While that is certainly a benefit, it has also allowed decision-makers to get a look at all of the contenders for a rotation spot down the stretch.

The Orioles will not need six starters by the time the postseason rolls around. They won’t even need five. At least two of the pitchers starting games for them this month will need to move to other roles in the next six weeks, and it may take that full six weeks to sort out who those pitchers will be.

Whether officially anointed or not, Kyle Bradish has cemented himself as the best starter on the roster. He reaffirmed that on Sunday with six shutout innings against the Athletics in a sweep-clinching win. His 3.03 ERA is now tied with Gerrit Cole for the best mark among qualified pitchers in the American League.

Bradish probably won’t be winning the AL Cy Young award. His peripheral numbers aren’t as impressive as those belonging to other top hurlers, and he’s likely to end up throwing far less innings than many of them as well. But he should garner at least a few down-ballot votes. That sounds every bit like a game one starter.

Right behind Bradish in terms of recent brilliance is rookie Grayson Rodriguez. In the six starts he’s made since being recalled in mid-July, the big righty has a 3.03 ERA/2.96 FIP while holding opponents to a .517 OPS. It took some fine-tuning in Norfolk, but this is the pitcher the Orioles had hoped for when he was originally promoted back in April.

The biggest question for Rodriguez will be how many innings he is permitted to throw. Between Triple-A and the big leagues this season, the 23-year-old Rodriguez has 122.1 innings under his belt. That’s already 46.2 innings more than he threw during his injury-shortened 2022 campaign, and 19.1 innings more than his previous career-high 103 innings thrown in 2021.

Orioles’ GM Mike Elias indicated last month that innings limits weren’t much of a concern for this current pitching staff, but we can imagine the club has some internal numbers they are more comfortable with than others. Perhaps Rodriguez is nearing that number, perhaps he isn’t.

Dean Kremer could be in a similar situation. The 27-year-old has already surpassed his previous innings high and is on track to throw another 30 or so before the regular season ends.

Unlike Bradish or Rodriguez, who both seem to be getting stronger as the season gets late, Kremer has been remarkably consistent. Since his disastrous April came to an end, Kremer has pitched to a 3.90 ERA and 4.62 FIP. Since May 10, his season ERA has gone no higher than 4.97 and no lower than 4.43 while his FIP has oscillated between 5.00 and 4.48. This consistency is what makes Kremer a valuable regular season starter, and it could also be what makes him vulnerable in this discussion.

Kyle Gibson and Jack Flaherty are the two veterans on the staff that the team needs more out of right now.

Gibson was the team’s Opening Day starter, and he’s been rock solid for much of the year. But his 8.31 ERA in August is concerning. He’s giving up way too much hard contact, including four home runs in just 17.1 innings of work.

Flaherty was the team’s big trade deadline addition. His debut against Toronto was great, but then he allowed 10 runs—plus six walks and two hit by pitches—over eight innings to the Astros and Padres as a follow up.

Just a couple of weeks ago it would have been hard to imagine an Orioles’ playoff rotation without both of the experienced hurlers, but if they continue on in their current form their inclusion would be too great of a risk to take.

The last member of the current six-man setup is Cole Irvin. The lefty was supposed to be a rotation fixture that ate innings all summer long, but a poor April booted him to Norfolk, where he eventually got his feet under him and returned to Baltimore.

When asked to start in recent months, Irvin has been great. Since the start of July he has made four starts for the O’s. In those games he has gone 21.1 total innings and allowed three earned runs while striking out 14 and walking five. It’s amazing what avoiding walks and home runs can do for a pitcher.

Tyler Wells also deserves to be part of this conversation. The former Rule 5 pick was the team’s best starter for half the season. He boasted a 3.18 ERA on July 8. But the wheels came off later in the month, earning him a demotion down to Double-A Bowie, where he has been starting once a week and is yet to see his pitch count eclipse 60. His most recent outing was a two-inning, 27-pitch performance in which he allowed one run (a solo home run, of course).

Wells is an interesting case because he has previous big league relief experience, and that is also an area where the Orioles could use some help. Could his recent shortened outing be an effort from the team to transition him back into a relief role?

And don’t forget about John Means! The veteran lefty is nearing a big league return from Tommy John surgery. His rehab assignment began on August 10, and he’s already made three starts. That includes Sunday, when he allowed one run over four innings and 57 pitches. That doesn’t sound like someone being prepped for bullpen work, so some room will need to be made in the rotation when the time comes.

It doesn’t feel like anyone beyond Bradish has staked a claim to a spot in the postseason rotation just yet. It would feel harsh to leave Gibson or Kremer out considering their season-long contributions. But what if Rodriguez continues to ascend? What if Means looks like his old self? The goal is to win a World Series, and that can require ice cold calculations at times.

As the saying goes, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. The Orioles have eight candidates for what is likely to be four spots on a playoff roster. An injury or severe under-performance may eliminate one or two options in the next six weeks, and any needs that arise in the bullpen could also play a role. But regardless, there will still be difficult decisions to make.