Triple-A rotation should be one to watch in 2020

The Double-A Bowie Baysox had a pitching rotation that was fun to watch last year on the O’s farm. On its way to the Eastern League championship series for just the second time, Bowie put up some very strong pitching numbers.

The Baysox’s team ERA of 3.18 led the league and set a record. So did the club’s WHIP of 1.18, which was so strong, it was the best in the Eastern League since 2001. Bowie ranked second with 16 shutouts on its way to a 76-64 record. A record that looks much better when one considers the club’s 7-23 start to the season.

As the Baysox rotation pitchers move up to Triple-A, that should provide some real excitement for Orioles fans. How will that group fare at that level? If they do well, next stop Baltimore. So there should be plenty to watch at Norfolk in 2020.

The rotation there should include some or all of this group: Lefties Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther, Bruce Zimmermann and Alex Wells, and right-handers Dean Kremer, Michael Baumann and Cody Sedlock.

Akin went 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA in 25 games for Norfolk. Over 112 1/3 innings, he allowed 109 hits with 61 walks and an International League-leading 131 strikeouts. He tied for first in the league in average against at .252. He is the most experienced of the young pitchers in terms of Triple-A innings, which seems to put him next up on the list for a major league shot at some point. He will get a good look in Sarasota.

In a November interview, Norfolk manager Gary Kendall provided some thoughts on Akin’s 2019 season.

“Every time he went out, I was very confident this guy would give us a real good start,” Kendall said. “He was a real good worker between outings and really gets after it. I like that about him. He’s a very focused kid, very driven. I thought his breaking ball and changeup made the biggest strides versus his fastball this year. If he got in trouble, it was because of his fastball command. Then the latter part of the year, he started to buckle down and command that better. He just knows what he is doing out there and is very composed. He had a blister situation early in the year, but he overcame that. I really liked his body of work.”

Lowther, the Orioles’ co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2018 with Akin, went 13-7 with a 2.55 ERA at Bowie. He almost won a pitching Triple Crown, leading the league in wins and strikeouts while finishing second in ERA.

Alex-Wells-Bowie-Baysox-Delivers-Black-Sidebar.jpgWells went 8-6 with a 2.95 ERA. He again produced a low walk rate (1.6) and strikeout rate (6.9). He rated among Eastern League leaders in WHIP (fifth, 1.07), ERA (sixth), innings pitched (seventh, 137 1/3) and batting average against (ninth, .236).

Zimmermann went 5-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 17 games before moving to Triple-A. Spending time at Triple-A last year, as did Akin and Kremer, could give him an early edge on a rotation spot with the Tides to begin 2020. He went 2-3 with a 4.89 ERA in seven starts for Norfolk.

Orioles director of pitching Chris Holt is a fan of Zimmermann, as I found out during an interview in the fall.

“Man, where do I start? No. 1, his fastball got better. No. 2, his curveball got better. No. 3, his changeup got better. Four, his command and approach to attack hitters got better,” said Holt. “He overall took everything that we would throw at him and put it to use to make it actionable on field. Just really proud of that guy for the work ethic and willingness to go out and work to improve all facets of his game. Certainly a guy who does fly below the radar. But certainly a guy who is capable of being an impact guy at the big league level at some point.”

Kremer was 9-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 15 starts for Bowie. He made four late-season starts for Norfolk and was 0-2 with an 8.84 ERA. But he then impressed in the Arizona Fall League. He went 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA in the AFL.

“This guy knows what he’s doing,” Kendall said of Kremer. “He’s very confident with a very good delivery with great arm action. He’s a strike-thrower that is around the plate all the time. I think he can pitch deep into games. He has the capability to have four good pitches. He’s in tremendous shape and is a very good worker.

“He would pitch low 90s often. I saw him with a little better velocity last year at Bowie, but I really like the way the ball comes out of his hand. Such a good delivery. The curve is tight, a nice easy curveball with good tight spin. The slider and change to go with it. I really like what I see out of him.”

Baumann, the guy they call “Big Mike,” had a big year. He went 7-6 with a 2.98 ERA, .194 average against and 1.05 WHIP between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. He elevated his game when he got to Bowie, going 6-2 with a 2.31 ERA over 13 games. In 70 innings, he gave up only 45 hits and just two homers. He pitched a nine-inning no-hitter on July 16 versus Harrisburg. The 24-year-old Baumann shared the Jim Palmer O’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award with right-hander Grayson Rodriguez.

Holt said: “Mike is a very physical, toolsy pitcher who has an impeccable fastball. The slider is very good and he’s still working on developing the curve and changeup to be plus offerings. He is another example of a guy who, especially as he got to Double-A, really began to put his game together. And he was using his mix and using the attack plan information to his advantage. But basically continuing to pitch off his strengths. Right now developmentally, he’s still working on some delivery improvements to get more consistent with his best. But even in terms of his delivery he made strides on the year.”

Sedlock went 5-3 with a 2.84 ERA between Single-A Frederick and Bowie. The 24-year-old was the club’s top draft pick in 2016. He was not protected on the 40-man roster over the winter, but went untaken in the Rule 5 draft. He is still very much on the club’s radar after a healthy season of 95 innings. He pitched to a 2.36 ERA with Frederick and a 3.71 ERA at Bowie.

Sedlock has just 34 Double-A innings under his belt and Baumann has 70. Those numbers could mean the club will start both pitchers at Bowie for more work at that level. No matter how the O’s stack their high minors rotations to begin next year, this group of seven has a track record and resume to get fans excited.

One aspect to watch is how the pitchers fare using the major league baseball. In 2019, Triple-A used the major league ball, but pitchers at Double-A did not. The major league ball no doubt had more carry and produced some big offense at Triple-A.

But the group of young pitchers mentioned here will have a lot to say about the pitching over the next couple of years.

Will some or all of them be part of a pitching turnaround over the next year or two in Baltimore?

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