Cole Irvin addition another step to better overall pitch efficiency for the Orioles

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As the Orioles pitching staff made vast improvement last season – a team ERA of 3.97 after the club had ranked last the year before at 5.84 – there was an area of improvement that may have flown under the radar.

The staff as a whole was much more pitch-efficient in 2022. The O’s staff averaged 16.2 pitches per inning. That was tied for eighth fewest in the major leagues. They ranked last the year before, throwing 17.5 pitches per inning. The Los Angeles Dodgers (15.6) and Cleveland Guardians (15.7) topped the majors in this stat in 2022.

In adding southpaw Cole Irvin via a trade with Oakland, the Orioles get a pitcher who is among the best in the majors in this stat. He averaged 15.0 pitches per inning in 2021 and was even better last season at 14.4. That was second fewest in the American League last season. A pitcher with that average would need just 86 or 87 pitches to clear six innings.

And by the way, while Jordan Lyles led the club with 13 quality starts last year (and the team went 9-4 in those games), Kyle Gibson and Irvin each recorded 15 quality starts. They eat up some innings and provide some quality along the way.

During his Zoom interview with O’s media Friday morning, Irvin talked about how being so efficient with his pitches is a real plus.

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Lefty Cole Irvin talks about joining the Orioles

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New Orioles lefty pitcher Cole Irvin has quickly adjusted to the fact that he woke up yesterday an Oakland Athletic and ended the day a Baltimore Oriole. He said he enjoyed conversations Friday with manager Brandon Hyde and pitching coach Chris Holt. He’s excited to see what the O’s coaches can offer him.

And when Oakland played in Baltimore last September, he took note of the talent in the other dugout that was on its way to 83 wins.

“I’m excited,” Irvin said during a Zoom call with Baltimore media this morning. “The first thing that came to my mind when I got the call, when we faced Baltimore at the end of the season, is how many plays Gunnar Henderson made that series. That kid’s jersey was dirty by the end of the first inning, top to bottom.

“I’m excited. It’s a young group. It’s going to be a lot of fun, there is so much talent. Just the difference from ’21 to ’22 was a visible difference. Excited to kind of get involved with the organization a little more, get to know the fans. There is a lot to be excited about.”

The Orioles acquired Irvin and Single-A right-hander Kyle Virbitsky Friday for minor league shortstop Darell Hernaiz.

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O's add lefty starter, plus another top 100 prospects haul on Thursday

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The Orioles have the best farm system right now in Major League Baseball. This according to several outlets ranking them that way. And if one big standard in determining that is most prospects on a top 100 list, the Orioles last night matched their Baseball America performance by getting eight ranked on the latest MLBPipeline.com list.

Gunnar Henderson, still prospect-eligible and eligible for the American League Rookie of the Year award this season, was ranked No. 1 by both outlets, and by Baseball Prospectus as well recently.

MLBPipeline.com places three O’s in the top 12, four in the top 40 and eight among the top 99.

Pitcher Grayson Rodriguez is No. 7, Jackson Holliday No. 12 and Colton Cowser No. 40. Jordan Westburg comes in at No. 74, Heston Kjerstad at No. 80, DL Hall at No. 97 and Joey Ortiz at No. 99.

The list doesn’t even include Kyle Stowers, Coby Mayo or Connor Norby, who might well have merited consideration. The Orioles ended the 2022 season with six on the MLBPipeline.com top 100, and Henderson was No. 2 to end the season.

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A look at what Adam Frazier could add for the Orioles

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As infielder/outfielder Adam Frazier joins the Orioles this year after signing a one-year deal for $8 million in December, which player on offense will the club be getting? The player that was above average in 2021 when he was a National League All-Star, or the player that was below average last season?

Or maybe the stats meet somewhere in the middle.

In 2021, over 639 plate appearances between Pittsburgh and San Diego, Frazier hit .305/.368/.411/.779 with 36 doubles, five triples, five homers, 43 RBIs, 10 steals and 83 runs scored.

But over 602 plate appearances for Seattle, which made the postseason in 2022, the 31-year-old lefty hitter batted .238/.301/.311/.612 with 22 doubles, four triples, three homers, 42 RBIs, 11 steals and 61 runs.

Big difference in that Frazier’s OPS+ was 114 in 2021 and just 80, or 20 percent below league average, last season. Frazier has a career .728 OPS, which produces an OPS+ of 99, or just about at league average for his career.

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On O's hopes for Grayson Rodriguez to move from top prospect to top-of-rotation hurler

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Even for a pitcher who looked to be on the cusp of his major league debut, it was stunning stretch of pitching. During a season when top O’s pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez went 6-2 with a 2.62 ERA, he pitched even better in six starts leading up to when he got hurt.

When the 23-year-old right-hander took the mound at Triple-A Norfolk’s Harbor Park on June 1 versus Jacksonville, a call to Baltimore seemed almost at hand. I was writing at the time that, in my humble opinion, Rodriguez was very ready to debut with the Orioles.

That night he pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings but then walked off the mound and didn’t return. We would later learn he had suffered a Grade 2 right lat strain. He would not pitch again on the farm for three months. On Sept. 1 he returned with a rehab outing for High-A Aberdeen.

In those last six outings at Triple-A, counting the night he got hurt, his ERA was 0.79. Over 34 1/3 innings he gave up three earned runs on 16 hits with nine walks and 47 strikeouts. In four of the games he threw scoreless outings.

It was a stunning stretch of pitching, even for one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. Rodriguez is No. 6 on Baseball America’s new listing of the top 100 prospects. When he talked with reporters ahead of his game return in that Aberdeen outing, he noted that his pitching and stats were eye-popping in May for Norfolk.

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A good week for the farm and player development

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For a team looking to build an elite pipeline and support and grow its organization with quality home-grown talent, the last week or so have been good days for the Orioles.

It began a week ago today, when the club announced an international signing class of 27 players, headed up by 16-year-old shortstop Luis Ayden Almeyda. He got a $2.3 million signing bonus, the largest ever handed out by the Orioles to an international amateur. 

The O's class featured 13 players signing for $100,000 or more, and Koby Perez, the club's senior director of international scouting, told reporters the club has about $500,000 remaining from its pool allotment of $5,825,500. They could sign more players through Dec. 15. 

MLBPipeline.com, which ranked Almeyda as its No. 20 international prospect, gave him tool grades of 50 for hitting, running and fielding and 55 grades for power and arm. 

“I’m very excited and blessed,” Almeyda told MASNsports.com in his first one-on-one interview as an Oriole prospect. “I am ecstatic to start out with this organization and develop as a ballplayer and a man as well.

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Will O's hurlers smoothly adapt to the pitch clock?

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The 2023 Major League Baseball season will be unique in a few ways with some new rules coming to the majors for the first time. Such as the use of the pitch clock.

Will Orioles pitchers have any issues adjusting to the clock? We can’t know this answer yet, obviously, but I am going to guess any issues will be minimal.

Under the new rules, pitchers will have 15 seconds to pitch with no one on base and 20 seconds with a runner or runners on. The timer starts when the pitcher catches the return throw from the catcher, and to beat the clock the pitcher must start his motion before the clock runs out. The ball doesn't need to touch the plate before the clock expires, but the pitcher's motion must have started. Pitchers can step off the rubber and reset the clock, but this year can do that just twice per plate appearance.

MLB is trying, it seems, both to improve pace of play and improve time of game. In the minor league games using the clock last season, the average time of game was about 26 minutes shorter. Major league games moved past the three-hour mark on average in 2014. In 2021 big league games took an average of three hours, 10 minutes. The average last year was three hours and four minutes.

On Statcast they actually have a “pitch tempo” leaderboard. It tracks the amount of time from one pitch to the next for hurlers. Among the Orioles, when no one was on base, lefty Keegan Akin was the fastest worker with an average of 14.4 seconds between delivering pitches.

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O's minor league skippers talk about building the farm into a powerhouse

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The 2016 season was a good year for the Orioles. They won 89 games and they made the playoffs before one swing in the American League wild-card game ended their season in Toronto. But the calendar year began with the Baseball America release of its top 100 prospects list. There were no Orioles among the top 100. Zero.

The year before, only two were ranked, with Dylan Bundy at No. 48 and Hunter Harvey at No. 68. The year after, 2017, the O’s had just Chance Sisco on the list at No. 57.

So maybe now, looking back, that was insight into the mounting losses that were ahead for the club. But now things are vastly different on the Baltimore farm. The Orioles led all clubs, with eight players on the new Baseball America top 100 prospects list this week. Evaluators see others who could be on the list.

Three players in three years and eight in one year. The Orioles never before had more than five on this offseason Baseball America listing of the best young talent in the sport. Now they show the way.

What happened to make this so?

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Eight is enough: O's lead the way on the Baseball America top 100

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Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has said the current O’s top 10 prospects list is about as deep as he’s ever seen. And this is a man that worked for talent-rich organizations in St. Louis and Houston. 

That is quite a statement and it was pretty much proven sound when eight of those 10 were ranked among the Baseball America top 100 prospects list released Wednesday. The magazine has been producing top 100 lists early every year since 1990, and until yesterday the Orioles had never had more than five players ranked in the initial list of the year.

It was great news for an organization that stated a clear intention of building an elite talent pipeline and one that is going to have to thrive using a lot of its homegrown talent. Right now the Orioles have the deepest prospect pool in baseball, and that was not news before yesterday. Numerous outlets have ranked their farm No. 1, even before yesterday.

But a haul of eight is indeed a haul. Cleveland had the second-most with seven, while the Dodgers, Mets and Rays had six each. The Orioles never had more than five on this initial list until now. 

The O’s began the 2022 season with five and ended it with six on the Baseball America ranking of their players this way: Gunnar Henderson (No. 1), Grayson Rodriguez (No. 4), Jackson Holliday (No. 38), DL Hall (No. 55), Colton Cowser (No. 88) and Jordan Westburg (No. 89).

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Orioles top all of MLB with eight ranked in the new Baseball America top 100

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It was a record-setting day for the Orioles with the release of the new Baseball America national top 100 prospects list today. Not only does Gunnar Henderson continue as the publication’s No. 1-ranked prospect, but the Orioles topped all of Major League Baseball with eight players ranked in the top 100, one more than Cleveland's seven and two more than the Dodgers, Mets and Rays, who had six each. 

This is the second year in a row in which Baseball America has ranked an Oriole as the top prospect in the sport. Adley Rutschman was No. 1 in the poll released last year. The publication has been producing top 100 lists since 1990, and the only other time the same organization had two different players at No. 1 in consecutive years was when the St. Louis Cardinals' J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel topped the ratings in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

Also, no team had two players from the same draft ranked No. 1 in back-to-back years until today. The O’s selected Rutschman No. 1 overall in 2019 and Henderson was their second pick in that draft, at No. 42.

So Henderson, who was the 2022 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year also, is still No. 1. Pitcher Grayson Rodriguez is now No. 6 and the second-highest rated pitcher behind the Phillies' Andrew Painter at No. 5. Baseball America now ranks Jackson Holliday, the overall No. 1 pick by the Orioles in the 2022 draft, at No. 15. The Orioles also have Colton Cowser at No. 41, pitcher DL Hall No. 75, Jordan Westburg No. 76, Connor Norby No. 93 and Joey Ortiz at No. 95. Norby and Ortiz crack Baseball America's top 100 rankings for the first time this year.

With eight players ranked, the Orioles blew away their previous best in this initial pool release by Baseball America. We say initial as the last several years the publication has tweaked its poll throughout the season. In 2022, the Orioles ended the season with six in the top 100. But in the initial poll release of each year, the Orioles' best previous showings were five players ranked in 2008, 2021 and 2022.

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From minor league top 100s to O's rotation: Could happen for two this year

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We didn’t really need a reminder this week but we got one. The Orioles' Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall are two of the best pitching prospects in baseball. And during the 2023 season there could be times they pitch in the same Orioles rotation for the first time.

Rodriguez, the club’s top draft pick in 2018, is ranked as the club’s No. 2 prospect behind Gunnar Henderson, and No. 4 nationally in top 100s by both Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com. Hall, the club’s top pick in 2017, is ranked as the O’s No. 5 prospect by Baseball America and No. 55 in their latest top 100. Via MLBPipeline.com he is No. 6 on the team's top 30 and was No. 87 in the site's last top 100. Both outlets should be releasing new top 100 lists soon.

The reminder this week that Hall and Rodriguez are among the best pitching prospects in the sport came when MLBPipeline.com released its listing of the current 10 best right-handed and left-handed pitching prospects in the sport. Rodriguez got knocked off the top perch by the Phillies' Andrew Painter and is now the No. 2 right-hander. Hall came in at No. 4 among the lefties.

The drafting of Hall as their top pick in 2017 and Rodriguez as their top selection a year later represents the only time the Orioles have ever taken high school pitchers in back-to-back years with their highest pick. Some over the years question taking high school pitchers so high in the draft, so if the O’s get both in the same rotation, and if they have any success, they will be beating some odds in one sense.

Both Hall and Rodriguez reached 100 mph with their fastballs during the 2022 season. But beyond the sheer velocity, both also show plus offerings with sliders and changeups, and Rodriguez added a cutter last year. Right now they both have plus stuff in abundance and their potential is high.

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A new international signing period arrives for the Orioles

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A new international amateur signing period has arrived in Major League Baseball. Later today the Orioles are expected to announce their latest class of international signees. Their class, per reports, will be headed by Dominican shortstop Luis Ayden Almeyda.

A right-handed hitter, the 16-year-old Almeyda, according to Baseball America, will get a bonus of over $2 million. The Orioles have never had an international amateur sign for $2 million or more, and Almeyda’s bonus would easily beat the previous record, set this time last year.

Here are the seven-figure bonuses from the O’s in the last two classes:

$1.7M – OF Braylin Tavera, from Jan. 15, 2022.

$1.3M – C Samuel Basallo from Jan. 15, 2021.

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Looking further into projection system stats for the Orioles

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In this recent post, Dan Szymborski, senior writer for FanGraphs.com and the developer of the ZiPS projection system discussed how his system saw Adley Rutschman’s 2023 season playing out.

Pretty well is the answer.

ZiPS projects Rutschman to produce an .823 OPS and 126 OPS+ in 2023, which would rank 26 percent above league average. It would be another strong season for Rutschman, and if his ZiPS projection of 4.7 Wins Above Replacement is accurate, per its current player projections, Rutschman’s WAR would rank 11th best in the majors.

But Rutschman is not the only player that ZiPS or another projection system, Steamer, sees as having strong numbers in 2023. In looking at both ZiPS and Steamer, it seems ZiPS expects a bit more offense from other Orioles too.

For instance, ZiPS projections have four Orioles producing an OPS+ of 115 or more next season, with Rutschman at 126, Gunnar Henderson 123, Ryan Mountcastle 119 and Anthony Santander at 115. By comparison, the Yankees have just three players projected to exceed a 115 OPS+, with Aaron Judge at 164, Giancarlo Stanton 119 and Anthony Rizzo at 116.

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More props for the farm and player development and other notes

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During the 2022 season, the Orioles organization got a lot of props for its farm system and player development operation. Baseball America, MLBPipeline.com and ESPN now rank its system as No. 1. They all placed Baltimore at the top in midseason rankings, the latest we have from the outlets. They could update those soon.

Now comes an MLB Pipeline poll published recently in which the outlet surveyed major league front office officials. That group also has the Orioles as having the No. 1 farm in baseball.

Half of those asked which team has the best farm in baseball responded Baltimore. The Los Angeles Dodgers came next at 21 percent, and Arizona third at nine percent. Of the 30 clubs, nine got votes for the top farm, but no club got nearly as many votes as the Orioles did.

The article states: "The Orioles have ranked as the top farm system in our last three rankings, and it looks like the industry agrees. Even with Adley Rutschman graduated, the combination of high-end prospects just about ready to impact the big league team and depth in the system has them very well-regarded, with the Dodgers not too far behind."

So we have pretty much reached a consensus here with the top outside outlets selecting the Orioles, and many of those execs inside the game doing so as well.

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Noting projection system stats for 2023 for Adley Rutschman

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If projection systems prove correct, by the end of the 2023 baseball season, Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman will have had another strong season. One strong enough to place him alongside the best players in the game.

Baltimorean Dan Szymborski, Senior writer for FanGraphs.com, contributor to ESPN, a data consultant and Baseball Writers' Association of America member, has run his ZiPS projection system since 2004. The computer projections use multi-year statistics, with more recent seasons weighted more heavily to attempt to tell us what stats the player might produce for the year ahead.

Szymborski’s system projects a final Wins Above Replacement number of 4.7 for Rutschman for the coming year. While that would actually be less than his 5.3 fWAR of 2022, it would place him among the top 10 or 12 players in baseball and Szymborski said he would rank behind Mike Trout and a few others and would be ahead of a talent such as Mookie Betts.

ZiPS sees Rutschman batting .262/.363/.460 this year with an .823 OPS, producing an OPS+ of 126, which is 26 percent above league average. He would hit 39 doubles with one triple, 18 homers and 63 RBIs.

Szymborski said his system projects a one in 10 chance that Rutschman could max out by batting .308/.417/.568, which would produce a .985 OPS for a 166 OPS+. Those numbers, if reached, would lead to 7.4 WAR. There have been just 24 catcher seasons of 7.0 WAR or better – one by former O’s backstop Chris Hoiles. That projection has Rutschman hitting 26 home runs and close to 50 doubles.

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More O's questions: The readers' story

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Today I am asking a few more questions of O's fans. But with a different spin on this edition. This one is where the readers can fill us in on their personal stories.

With today's questions, rather than seek your input on the Orioles and their future outlook, I want to know about your past with baseball. I want to ask each reader and commenter about their past with this great sport.

On to today's questions:

1) How did you first get interested in baseball?

2) When did you first become an Orioles fan? Any memories from your early fandom days?

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A look at the many challenges for minor league managers

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When I conducted a two-part interview and series on the Orioles farm system recently with director of player development Matt Blood, I asked a question about the Orioles' minor league managers. I inquired how the minor league skipper’s job differs from that of a big league manager.

And the answer was not unexpected for anyone that has followed the minors for any stretch of time. It is very different, and this is where the concept of winning comes into play. You play to win the game, yes that is true, as one once famously said. But on the farm you play first to develop players – this is truly job one.

Here is what Blood said on that topic.

“Well, the major league manager’s job is to win games, do as well as he can to get the team to the playoffs and to, ideally, win the World Series. There is still development going on at the MLB level, but the strategy is to win games. In the minor leagues it’s the inverse of that. In the minor leagues, the No. 1 job is to develop players, so when they make the majors they are ready to contribute. You know winning, trying to win, comes secondary to development. We definitely want competitive teams and players that are trying to win baseball games, but we’re not going to sacrifice development for winning in the minor leagues.”

I asked Blood if the O’s minor league managers make out the lineups or, for development reasons, there is front office input.

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Looking at the makeup for the late innings in the O's bullpen

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The signing of former Orioles right-hander Mychal Givens lengthened the current Orioles bullpen with the addition of another quality arm. In one sense he can pick up some of the slack that Jorge López left behind after his trade to the Minnesota Twins.

One possibility that could really benefit the team would be a scenario where Félix Bautista closes out games in the ninth with setup help in the eighth from left-hander Cionel Pérez. Pérez was such a surprise last year and got out both left- and right-handed hitters. It is unlikely the O’s would need just two pitchers for those innings, but in many wins last year before the López trade, Bautista did get into the game in the eighth and López in the ninth.

The ways clubs use bullpens these days, they pretty much look to match up from about the seventh inning on, maybe even starting with the sixth some nights. But having two dependable hurlers to handle those last two innings many nights in winnable games is one way to go.

The O’s could have some combo of Bautista, Pérez, Dillon Tate, Givens and Bryan Baker for those last nine or 10 or so outs. If DL Hall makes the team and/or winds up in the bullpen, we can add him to this mix. Or Keegan Akin, Joey Krehbiel or several other bullpen candidates/options.

But for now, pending any further moves, the Orioles look to be fortified pretty well for the late innings.

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A few more from the 2023 season wish list

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As the New Year began on Sunday, we provided a wish list for some players and O's staff for the 2023 season. We add to that here today.

Terrin Vavra and Kyle Stowers: More regular at-bats. I think that on rebuilding O’s teams that were headed for 100 or more losses, one or both of these players may have been given 300 or 400 plate appearances, and we could really tell a bit about them in such a sample. The 2023 edition may make that hard for one or both.

But among all Orioles that batted last year, Vavra’s .340 OBP ranked fourth. We know this kid can work the count and uses the whole field, We also know he hit just one homer in 103 plate appearances. The power is just not going to be there, but he has to bring what he can bring, which is the plate discipline needed on a club that ranked 22nd in the majors in this stat last year.

Stowers power seems to be a real thing. He ranked fifth on the team in slugging among all O’s batters in 2022. He can drive it out to all fields and worked to decrease his K rate at Triple-A last year. I think that, given enough at-bats, Stowers could produce solid corner outfield stats and also would bring average-or-better defense with a plus arm.

Jorge Mateo: The ability to find once again whatever he found batting that made his hitting, sub-par to that point, look above average and even special at times for a spell last year. He did have a nice five-week stretch of hitting that ran from July 16 to Aug. 23, including his big night at the Little League Classic. In that span of 31 games he batted .321 with a .944 OPS. You thought maybe he had turned a corner. But that did not hold up, and over his final 36 games he hit .174/.213/.270/.483.

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Looking at a few more available free agent pitchers

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If the Orioles are going to add a pitcher they can slot at or near the top of their rotation, they are probably going to have to go the trade route at this point and potentially part with one or more of their top 30 prospects. But if they want to add a pitcher that can slot in the middle or back end of their rotation, they could still look to sign a remaining free agent.

Here are a few possibles.

Righty Zach Davies: In the 2011 MLB Draft, the Orioles selected a kid pitcher out of a high school in Arizona named Zach Davies. They picked him in round 26 and yet he signed for a big overslot bonus of $575,000.

Then-scouting director Joe Jordan knew the kid didn’t throw very hard but was wiser than his years in knowing how to attack hitters, and he had a strong changeup.

Davies has turned those traits into a decent big league career, and if the Orioles seek a reunion years later, they could have one. On July 31, 2015, the O’s traded Davies, then pitching to a 2.84 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk, to Milwaukee for outfielder Gerardo Parra. That one did not work out. At the time of the deal Parra had an .886 OPS for the Brewers, but that number dropped all the way to .625 with the Orioles. At the end of the year he signed with Colorado.

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