Zimmermann and Akin say they are healthy and a full go for spring

On the final day of Birdland Caravan and at the final event of the three-day run, reporters caught up with four pitchers who will look to break north with the Orioles in April by winning roster spots in spring training. That group included lefties Bruce Zimmermann, Keegan Akin and Nick Vespi, and right-hander Mike Baumann.

All four spent some, or in one case, a lot of time in Baltimore during the 2023 American League East championship season, but Zimmermann and Akin are coming off injuries. They pronounced themselves to be healthy and a full go when spring training starts in a couple of weeks.

Zimmermann, who had a 4.73 ERA in seven O’s games last year while pitching most of the season in Triple-A, had core muscle surgery Oct. 19 in Philadelphia.

That was about three weeks after he pitched two scoreless innings versus Boston for the O’s in Game 161 at Oriole Park.

“The surgery went real well,” the Baltimore-area native said of the October procedure. “Really grateful I had one of the top doctors that has worked on a few other guys on the team. Rehab went really well. Been down in Florida for about two weeks now to get an early start and get in front of the training staff and that has been going really well. I should be full go when pitchers and catchers report.

“Just looking forward to keep making strides to increase the volume and intensity like we’ve been planning. Got about three weeks until we get going again.”

Zimmermann said the injury first seemed to impact him in July, but he never went to the injured list. He had a cortisone shot and finished up the season.

Now, after pitching to a 4.42 ERA in 99 2/3 innings with Norfolk and after five stints in ’23 with the O’s, he’s ready to chase a roster spot yet again and try to make his hometown team.

“Everything has been going smoothly since I’ve been down there, so everything points to being ready when pitchers and catchers report and fight for a job when everyone else gets down there," he said.

“My goals are always the same, similar to last year. I want to be on the Opening Day roster and want to contribute to a team on a daily basis, whether that is in the starting rotation or a long relief role. I think my stuff still plays well enough to compete and get outs in the big leagues. I just want the opportunity.”

Zimmermann is yet another Oriole that will be at the AFC Championship game today rooting on his hometown Ravens against Kansas City.

“Been a Ravens fan my entire life. Going to the game with a few of the other guys. … It’s pretty awesome to have two teams in the same city competing like this. Go Birds. Hopefully they take down the Taylor Swift empire,” he said with a a laugh.

Akin to get back on the roster: Akin, 28, did not pitch after Aug. 3 in an outing for Norfolk last year and threw just two innings after June 28. He went on the injured list with lower back discomfort in late June and was moved to the 60-day IL on Aug. 23.

In the 2022 season, he posted a 3.20 ERA with a 1.090 WHIP, but those numbers were 6.85 and 1.775 in 23 2/3 innings in the bigs last season.

Now Akin is excited to get back on a big league mound and to find his previous form. 

“Feeling good. Got healed up,” Akin told reporters yesterday during a Caravan Happy Hour with fans at UNION Craft Brewing in Baltimore. “Right on schedule for spring and I’ve already thrown some bullpens. Already been down in Florida actually – try to get out in the heat and get used to that. Can’t complain about leaving the snow (in Michigan) right?”

Akin said he kept trying to get back in the second-half of last season. 

“I kind of fought it here and there, little bit,” he said. “And then it just got out of hand. I did one rehab outing in Florida and a Triple-A outing a couple of days later. Still wasn’t feeling really good – actually wasn’t feeling really well at all. Honestly tried to come back a few more times during the summer. Just wasn’t allowing me to do it. We exhausted about every option you can without going under the knife. Thankfully we got it taken care of and now on to 2024.”

Akin said he started throwing again around Thanksgiving and is right on schedule to start spring as if he had not missed any time.

Now he wants to regain his previous form and said just being healthy is the biggest factor he can hopefully do just that.

“Yeah, I would like to say so," he said. "Obviously, we haven’t gotten the hitter in the box yet, had that extra adrenaline going. But I feel like about any other normal offseason heading into spring. Probably would have faced some hitters if I were home working out, but kind of like we said in Florida, there is no need to now in January.

“I look at spring like I have every year: I’m not on the team until they tell me. I have to pitch myself on the team.”

Hearing also from Big Mike and Vespi: Mike Baumann, who went 10-1 with a 3.76 ERA in 64 2/3 for the Orioles last year, has the same mindset as Akin. He is out to win a job even after becoming the 11th relief pitcher in O’s history to win 10 games in a season and the first since Brad Brach in 2016.

He spent most of his season in the majors in 2023 and showed a fastball that averaged 96.5 mph. That heater topped out 99.3 in two late May outings at Yankee Stadium. They were, per Statcast, the fastest pitches of Baumann’s career.

I asked him about touching 99 and if the velocity was big for him or had he found a lower velocity that maybe provided better command and control?

“When my velocity is up, it kind of tells me my whole body sequence and my timing is on,” said Baumann. “I think that is when I’m also having my best command, the most consistency. So that is what I need to focus on the most being more consistent. I’ve had my ups and downs but working to have more ups.”

Baumann also noted that you can’t force the velocity to come and that overthrowing can cause its own share of issues. “Sometimes less is more,” he said.

Vespi had five stints with the Orioles and posted an ERA of 4.30 in 14 2/3 innings in the majors. He had a 2.33 ERA in Triple-A.

Vespi said he was thrilled the Orioles asked him to return this year to the Caravan.

“I was here last year for the first time. I love to interact with the fans,” he said. “When they show up to Camden Yards, that makes our job a lot better. Any chance we can reach out to them and have a personal experience, it’s always a good time.”

Vespi said he keeps working to improve his breaking pitches and has been tweaking a “one-seam fastball” that he started throwing last spring.

“It has two-seam action,” he said. "Always have been working on a pitch that goes the other way. All my pitches seem to go into righties and away from lefties. Been working on that to keep hitters off balance. Has two-seam kind of movement and that is a legit pitch in my arsenal right now and we’ll be seeing a lot of it this year.”

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