César Valdez has become so important to the Orioles, and in such an unexpected manner after his prolonged absence from the majors, that manager Brandon Hyde is open to using the veteran right-hander in pretty much any role.
The rotation isn’t closed to him.
Valdez became a starter in winter ball after one relief appearance with his original team, Tigres del Licey, and dominated for Gigantes and Águilas Cibaeñas - the latter being the Dominican Republic’s entrant into the Caribbean Series.
If it sounds a little confusing, just know that Valdez impressed and the Orioles noticed.
Valdez faced Estrellas Orientales in the semifinal round and tossed five scoreless innings. He faced Águilas Cibaeñas in the championship series and allowed one run and two hits in five innings.
Invited to join Águilas as the Dominican’s representative in the Caribbean Series, Valdez started twice and surrendered only one run and six hits with nine strikeouts over 11 innings for the championship.
An initial glance at the Orioles’ rotation suggests that it’s too crowded with John Means, the veteran trio of Félix Hernández, Wade LeBlanc and Matt Harvey in camp, and rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer having an edge based on their impressive debuts. There’s also a line formed behind them.
But manager Brandon Hyde hasn’t made a final decision on Valdez, who brings tremendous value as a multi-purpose reliever. Valdez allowed only two runs in 14 2/3 innings and recorded three saves for the Orioles after coming from the Mexican League.
“We’re going to stretch him out,” Hyde said today in his Zoom conference call with the media. “He’s going to pitch multiple innings this spring. I think that he’s a candidate to do a number of different things because he’s go the ability to start, he pitched the ninth inning for us at the end of the year. He can go long out of the bullpen, as well. So we’re going to build him up innings-wise and kind of see where we are toward the end of camp.”
Asked if any other pitchers who were exclusively relievers will be stretched out as rotation candidates, Hyde replied, “I don’t see from a starting standpoint, but I think you’re going to see some of our guys throw more innings in spring than normal.
“I would like to build them up to be multiple innings guys. I’d like to see them at least become one-plus, some guys two-plus, maybe even three out of the ‘pen starting the year.”
Rookie left-hander Bruce Zimmermann is competing for a starting job, but could shift to the bullpen for long relief. It isn’t necessarily rotation or Triple-A.
“I think we’re going to see how he throws in camp,” Hyde said. “We see him as a potential starter. He’s coming in to win a starter or at least a bulk inning guy role and then we’ll go from there. It’s tough to evaluate last season just because he had such a short sprint in the big leagues, hasn’t had a full Triple-A year. So it’s learning at the major league level.
“We’ll decide at the end if feel like he’s ready to be a starter in the big leagues. We have high hopes for him, like his stuff. I saw his bullpen today. It’s really, really impressive. He’s got multiple pitches with a really nice arm. We have high hopes for him and we’re going to make that decision.
“If he’s on the club, he’s going to pitch bulk innings, though. We’re going to make sure that he gets experience and that he stays stretched out.”
The rebuild chugs along and the record still doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, which Hyde explained again today. He has to perform a delicate dance, understanding and supporting the process but also making it known that the team won’t roll over for anyone.
“I think we want to stay competitive and we want to get better every single day,” Hyde said.
“I’m still in the mindset of improving as a ballclub, improving as an organization, continuing to get our guys experience at the major league level, and there’s no better experience than playing in the American League East. You’re only going to get better by playing the competition that we play. The last two years you’ve seen a lot of our guys improve. And we’re just going to continue with that mindset.
“I think we surprised some people last year, being in it until the last series of the year. Really happy and proud of how hard our guys played. I want to continue with that same energy level, I want to keep playing the game hard. We have a lot of work to do, we have a lot of improvements to make, we have a lot of guys that don’t have a ton of experience, and the bottom line is just to get these guys better, continue to get major league experience at the highest level and compete. And that’s our mindset going forward.”
So, no pressure to improve the won-loss record?
“I’m really processed based,” Hyde said. “I’m not concerned ... I’m trying to win one game at a time, to be honest with you. That’s an old cliché, but that is true. I just want to see improvement from our players and that will equal more wins.”
Reliever Paul Fry put a humorous twist today on his optimism.
“We have a special group,” he said, “and we have a 0.0 chance to make the playoffs, but that’s whatever.”
Alexander Wells is finishing up the intake process and is close to joining workouts. He traveled from Australia, which created a minor delay.
Catcher Pedro Severino conducted a Zoom interview today and said it’s “an honor” to have Hernández in camp, a pairing that he never expected to unfold.
“That’s one of the greats,” Severino said. “I just want to learn and just (have) him help my other rookie pitchers over here. I mean, I’m excited. I can’t wait.”
Severino, likely to break camp again as the starter while Adley Rutschman is assigned to Double-A Bowie, went 5-for-17 with a double and two home runs in his first five games and slashed .313/.382/.463 with three doubles, three home runs and 18 RBIs in August. However, he went 10-for-63 (.159) with a .438 OPS in the final month and didn’t have a home run or RBI.
The clock may be ticking on Severino’s tenure with the Orioles. He’s out of minor league options, he’ll earn $1.825 million in 2021 and Rutschman is waiting in the lobby.
Severino could be a trade chip in July. He has two more years of arbitration eligibility and is going to be too expensive as a backup.
“Every year is really big for me. It’s special for me,” he said.
“I just want to be more consistent than last year and help my team and my pitcher and try to do the best for the team.”