A total of 18 different pitchers made starts for the Orioles on the mound in 2019. We know they’ll need five to start next season and the number over 162 games will go well north of that, probably.
Let’s take stock of the rotation as of today.
The 2019 O’s produced a rotation ERA of 5.57 to rank 14th in the American League. The Los Angeles Angels were worst at 5.64. The Orioles rotation rated 10th in innings (789), ninth in opponent average (.271), 15th in homers allowed (179), 15th in OPS (.845) and ninth in WHIP (1.41).
The core four ... OK, three: It’s a trio that the club is counting on being in the opening day rotation. Led by left-hander John Means after a year when he went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA and finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote. That ERA would have ranked seventh in the AL had he thrown enough innings to qualify for league leaders. He was seven innings short.
This group includes right-hander Alex Cobb. After hip and knee surgeries and just three starts last summer, the club expects him to be a full-go come next month. The Orioles would love to see him regain the second-half form he showed in 2018, when he pitched to a 2.56 ERA after the All-Star break.
Right-hander Asher Wojciechowski went 4-8 with a 4.92 ERA in 17 games after the Orioles traded for him on July 1. On this team right now, he’s the third starter. He pitched to a 4.44 ERA in 10 games versus the AL East.
The Rule 5 candidates: They are right-handers Brandon Bailey, from Houston, and Michael Rucker, from the Chicago Cubs. Bailey has been a starter most of his career in the minors. In 22 games (17 starts) last year at Double-A he went 4-5 with a 3.30 ERA. He has a solid career ERA at 3.07, average against at .208 and WHIP at 1.14. He’s got a good spin rate on a fastball that some reports put between 91 and 94 mph, touching a bit more.
Rucker has made 42 starts in his 96 career pro appearances but just one last year, when he did pitch in some piggyback-type situations, coming in as planned following the starter and throwing multiple innings. Between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019 he went 0-3 with a 4.18 ERA.
They have to stay on the roster all year or the Orioles risk losing them, so no doubt these pitchers will get long looks in spring and have a leg up on roster spots. One or both could make the opening day roster. Then they’ll have to show enough to stay there or they can be offered back to their previous team at any point during the year.
Another Stewart: Not DJ, but Kohl Stewart, who was signed Dec. 29. It’s a big league signing (as part of a split contract) and he’s on the 40-man. He should get a good look after going 8-6 with a 5.14 ERA at Triple-A for Minnesota and 2-2 with a 6.39 ERA for the Twins. A former first-round pick (taken No. 4 overall in 2013), he was ranked among Minnesota’s top eight prospects four times between 2013 and 2016.
A four-pack: This group includes David Hess, Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann. The first three are on the 40-man and Hess has made 33 starts the past two years and has to find a way to improve on a 7.09 ERA. Akin is the most experienced of the guys on the farm, having completed a full year at Triple-A. He made some gains on his secondary pitches last summer. Zimmermann has thrown 38 2/3 innings at Triple-A and Kremer has thrown 19 1/3. They’re getting closer to getting a shot.
Still in the picture: A group that includes pitchers Ty Blach, Tom Eshelman, Luis Ortiz and Chandler Shepherd. They all made at least one start last season and remain in the organization. We should see them get chances in Florida.
Moving up from Bowie: It’s a talented group that should all be at Triple-A in 2020, either on opening day or possibly not long after. The list includes Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther, Alex Wells and Cody Sedlock. Zimmermann and Kremer spent a lot of time at Bowie in 2019 also. It’s a solid group that led Bowie to the Eastern League Championship Series with the Baysox leading the league in ERA and WHIP. Their movement toward and to Baltimore will likely be highly anticipated by Birdland.
Surprises and/or new additions: Can the Orioles produce another surprise in the rotation like we saw last season from Means? Will someone from the farm get there faster than thought or exceed expectations upon arrival?
Who will the club still add? We do expect to see one or more additions to the pitching staff before spring training starts. Heck, it could even come after the start in Florida. But will another veteran join the rotation?