The ability of Alexander Wells to give the Orioles 5 2/3 innings Wednesday on such short notice, with only three runs allowed, doesn’t guarantee the rookie a second major league start. Not until someone in the organization is willing to make the commitment and there’s still some uncertainty in the rotation.
The Orioles don’t know the length of Keegan Akin’s absence after his placement on the 10-day COVID-19 injured list. It doesn’t come with a minimum requirement.
No one knows whether Akin is allowed back in the rotation after Wells replaced him. He didn’t exactly have a strong grip on his spot, going only three innings in his last two starts.
In between was a relief appearance that covered 4 1/3 innings, with four runs allowed and six strikeouts, that saved the rest of the bullpen and again raised questions about the best way to use him.
Does he start, work in bulk relief or return to Triple-A Norfolk? And the same sampler platter could be slid in front of Wells.
The Sunday starter hasn’t been identified, though it’s veteran Matt Harvey’s turn. Akin could slot there if he’s active.
The Orioles are going to remain patient with their pitching prospects, knowing the challenges of taking the big step from Triple-A to the majors, but there must be some disappointment that Akin, Dean Kremer and Zac Lowther, who raised expectations that they’d be starting in the second half, are undergoing their own individual crises.
Akin has an 8.19 ERA, 1.800 WHIP and an unexplained reason to be going through COVID-19 protocols. Kremer was optioned again to Norfolk, where he’s allowed 20 earned runs (29 total) in 25 innings and has been told that he isn’t making a quick return. Lowther surrendered 10 runs and 13 hits in 8 1/3 innings with the Orioles and was 0-4 with a 6.93 ERA and 1.784 WHIP in seven starts with the Tides before going on the 10-day injured list Tuesday with a strained left shoulder.
“We were hopeful that the results would be a little bit better this year and we still believe in that group,” said executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias. “By and large, when you look at major league pitchers, their rookie seasons or their sophomore seasons, they have bad numbers and big ERAs and the important thing with those guys, performance-wise, is you look at strikeout and walk ratios and some of the peripheral indicators and they’re still strong, and there are a lot of things to like with these pitchers and we know that they’re learning on the job.
“This is a group that, because of the pandemic and because of our needs at the major league level, have been pushed into major league duty without much Triple-A experience whatsoever. It’s been a really tough challenge for these guys coming off a 60-game season and now being thrust into a 162-game season, so it’s been a lot for them. It has not been an easy way and introduction, and a lot of that is not their fault. So, we’re going to continue working with them and we like these guys and we think it’s going to shake out, and I think getting some of them back on track is going to be a big priority for us in the second half and going into next spring.”
Lowther’s injury doesn’t appear to be serious. It isn’t raising much concern beyond how he’s losing starts that should be aiding his development.
Maybe it’s a reason why he hasn’t been sharp.
“As all teams have had, we’ve had a lot of arm fatigue from our pitchers, especially this time of the year, mid-summer, and it’s starting to show up in results and players complaining of soreness or fatigue,” Elias said. “Zac or anyone that we value highly, we’re going to be careful with, just as we were with John Means, just as we’re being with Bruce Zimmermann, So, I think he’ll fall in that same boat.
“We’re going to take our time and flush out any tiredness or inflammation that he has and build him back up carefully with an eye on him helping and contributing down the stretch.”
The Orioles can’t get away from the constant flow of players going on and off the injured lists, with the minors unable to provide a reprieve. Norfolk’s roster begins to solidify and then someone else is removed, including outfielder Yusniel Diaz, who missed over a month with a strained quadriceps muscle and now is sidelined due to turf toe.
Diaz remains on the active roster but hasn’t played since July 11. He has one hit since June 29.
“I think we are frustrated for him in the sense that we’re big believers in the talent, I think, since Brandon (Hyde) and I have been here, and seeing him that first time in spring training we’ve been very impressed with the guy,” Elias said. “He had such a great spring training in 2019 and he was playing pretty well in 2019 before he got hurt. He was getting ready to be sent to Triple-A, and he played pretty well at our alternate site, but he has been dealing with injuries.
“Still got time on his side. These aren’t major injuries or career-threatening injuries. It’s just been a lot of minor stuff and really badly timed injuries. So, this stuff happens, we’ll get through it and we still like the talent a great deal. We just need him to get into a groove with his at-bats in Triple-A so he can start putting up numbers.”
There are a multitude of success stories in the system this year, headed by catcher Adley Rutschman, who’s going to be promoted to Triple-A later in the summer. His two-homer, seven-RBI game Wednesday night made a mockery of what constitutes a slump in his world.
“He’s impressing a lot of people and the industry in Double-A,” Elias said. “It’s exactly what we’re hoping to see.”
So, when does he move up another level? An exact date doesn’t exist, but Elias said, “I definitely think it’s something to keep an eye on and something that we’re keeping an eye on on a daily basis.”
The next move with Norfolk’s Jahmai Jones also is a scorching topic. How long he remains in the minors before the Orioles plug him into second base.
“Anytime you’re on the 40-man and you’re in Triple-A you’re very close, you’re a moment away from being called upon, and that could happen,” Elias said. “But he is a young guy, he is still someone who is making a major position change and he’s still working on things like that. We’re thrilled with his performance thus far and the way he’s controlled the strike zone and the consistency with producing and getting on base, and basically batting in the three hole every night for Norfolk, and so that’s been fun to see and his time will come.
“We’re enough of a believer in his bat and his talent that when he comes up we want it to be a successful debut and, hopefully, one that would not require him to go back down, so that takes some time. He hadn’t really played in Triple-A yet at all until this season because of the pandemic, and we’re trying to do right by him.”
The trade deadline is exactly one week away and the overall sense is that the Orioles won’t be as busy in 2021 as last summer, when they dealt pitchers Richard Bleier, Mychal Givens, Tommy Milone and Miguel Castro in the same month. This deadline is more likely to mirror 2019, when starter Andrew Cashner went to the Red Sox. They also traded pitcher Dan Straily to the Phillies on Aug. 1 in a cash transaction.
Elias said the lateness of this year’s draft also has delayed the trade activity around the league. It’s been unusually quiet, though the Rays made some noise last night by acquiring slugger Nelson Cruz from the Twins.
The real frenzy is coming next week. Just wait for it.
“I definitely think that’s affected the calendar,” Elias said. “We’re in a little different situation in that we don’t have a lot of expiring contracts that are trade chips right now. We’ve got a lot of players that people want, but they’re guys that we have under control for a year more or sometimes three or more, so it puts us in position to be judicious about it and take a look at opportunities as they come, and it’s hard for me to forecast.
“We’re certainly working around the clock in terms of communicating and analyzing any ideas or opportunities that cross our desk.”
There isn’t a more interesting case than first baseman Trey Mancini, who is entering his final arbitration year before free agency after again agreeing to a $4.75 million contract. He’s so important on and off the field. He’s also appealing to some contenders in search of a run producer, especially at a reasonable cost. He makes perfect sense for the Orioles. He also makes less sense in a rebuild. He’s hugely popular and an inspiration as a cancer survivor who’s bashing myths and stereotypes with every swing.
This is a business. This is also a very delicate situation. It’s inevitable that the two would clash.
“I think in the situation that we are in, we’re not doing our jobs as a front office if we’re not considering everything on a case-by-case basis with any of our players, and that’s not unique to the Orioles. Almost every front office in baseball operates that way right now,” Elias said.
“We’re taking that approach with all of our players, but we’re very mindful of factors like what our guys mean to the team both present and future, the other types of players in the organization and how that may impact future plans, and we take all of that into account and we try to seek the best long-term or short-term moves for the Orioles and getting this team back to the playoffs as quickly and as surely as we can.”
Elias isn’t going to delve too deeply into specific players and show his hand. There’s zero benefit to it. But my take on this is the following:
The Orioles aren’t removing Mancini from the table because he only has one more year of control left and it would be stupid to push away any offers. They have to listen. Otherwise, it’s like committing front office malpractice, an expression often used by former executive Andy MacPhail.
They also could decide to negotiate an extension with Mancini, which is a rarity for a rebuilding club. They seem open to it despite assumptions to the contrary. Don’t give up on that idea.
If I had to guess, and everyone is doing it, I’d say Mancini isn’t traded this month. There are a few others ahead of him in the probability line. But it isn’t impossible. Just depends on the offer.
Mancini has said multiple times that he wants to stay, which, if I’m the Orioles, makes me think “hometown discount.” His agent may have other ideas, but it’s already out there.