As camp begins, another look at rotation candidates

When you look at the list of 73 players the Orioles have heading to spring training this week, there are 37 pitchers among that group of players. Of that group of 37, there are 15-20 that might have at least a remote shot at breaking north in the season-opening starting rotation. Realistically, the number is less, but still large.

Let’s take a look at groupings of pitchers that we could see in the rotation come April.

TOP TIER

This group includes lefty John Means, the likely opening day starter, and two youngsters who were with him in the rotation when 2020 ended in lefty Keegan Akin and right-hander Dean Kremer.

Barring an injury or real surprise, Means will emerge as the starter at Boston on April 1. He went 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA in 2019 and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. He went 2-4 with a 4.53 ERA in 10 starts last season. But over his last four starts, Means went 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA, a .488 OPS against and a 0.63 WHIP.

He was dominant.

Means’ strikeout rate was 11.4 per nine innings over those four starts, where he leaned heavily on a fastball that was really moving with late life. In his final three starts, he threw the pitch 59, 67 and 57 percent of the time. He threw 23 2/3 innings in those game with three walks to 30 strikeouts. It was very ace-like and he is as sure a thing as there is to be in this rotation when the bell rings.

Kremer gave up just one run and one hit over six innings versus the Yankees on Sept. 6 in his major league debut. He was 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA and .145 batting average against over his first three O’s starts. The guy showed outstanding spin rate data and his cutter became a real weapon. He looks solid for the rotation albeit after a small sample.

So does Akin after he went 1-2 with a 4.56 ERA and posted an ERA of 4.03 in his six starts. That number drops to 2.49 if you could take away an outing where he didn’t get out of the first inning. He showed some swing-and-miss stuff in the bigs. Akin averaged an impressive 12.27 strikeouts per nine innings, which was the best of any Oriole that pitched last year. It was also fourth among AL rookies that threw at least 25 innings.

THE VETERAN MINOR LEAGUE SIGNINGS

Six-time All-Star and 2010 AL Cy Young Winner Félix Hernández heads up this list. He has finished in the top eight for the Cy Young six times. The resume is great. But does he have anything left? He hasn’t pitched in a game that counts since the end of the 2019 season or even one that doesn’t since last spring training. He threw well for the Braves last February and March before opting out of the 2020 season in July.

Thumbnail image for LeBlanc-Throws-Black-Fenway-Sidebar.jpgWade LeBlanc had an ERA of 8.06 in six starts with the Orioles last season. He left an Aug. 23 game against Boston in the first inning with a stress fracture in his left elbow. It ended his season, but he did not need surgery. He’s rehabbed the injury and hopes to show the Orioles what he can do with a second chance with the club.

Righty Matt Harvey has also agreed to a minor league deal with the Orioles, a low-risk, low-dollar deal. Between 2012 and 2015, Harvey went 25-18 with a 2.53 ERA and a 1.000 WHIP. But over his last two seasons - pitching 19 games for the Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals - he is 3-8 with a 7.82 ERA and a 1.738 WHIP over 71 1/3 innings.

Are the O’s hoping to get one starter, maybe two at most, from this veteran trio?

HOPING FOR THEIR SHOT

Right-hander Jorge López, with six starts, tied for fourth-most on the Orioles last year. His ERA jumped from 5.11 to 6.69 when he gave up eight runs over two innings in his final start against Toronto. He showed flashes of talent and a lively fastball that averaged 94 mph. But we also saw the inconsistency that led him to the waiver wire where the Orioles acquired him from Kansas City. He’s out of options, so this spring is pretty important for him.

Throwing his 86 mph fastball, right-hander Thomas Eshelman probably pitched better than you remember last year. He went 3-1 with a 3.89 ERA and a 1.240 WHIP over 34 2/3 innings, which ranked fifth on the team. He is used to being discounted, as he probably is again as camp opens. But he provides nice depth and could also be that while pitching at Triple-A.

Lefty Bruce Zimmermann got his first major league shot late last year. He made his major league debut Sept. 17, allowing five runs against the Rays. But he gave up just one run over four innings in his second and last outing of the year, Sept. 23 at Boston. He certainly has a shot to break north with the club. That would be exciting for the former Towson University and Loyola Blakefield High School pitcher.

THE RULE FIVE DUO

Will Mac Sceroler or Tyler Wells get a big shot to make the rotation? That is an open question, but surely the club intends to take some level of look at these two. They are two of the 18 players taken in the major league phase of the Rule 5 last December.

Sceroler will try to make the jump from the Single-A Florida State League to the American League. Among those in his corner is his uncle, former Oriole and current MASN broadcaster Ben McDonald. A fifth-round pick of the Reds in 2017, Sceroler went 5-4 with a 3.69 ERA for Single-A Daytona in 2019.

The 6-foot-8 Wells, 26, was a 15th-round pick in 2016 and had Tommy John surgery in May 2019. In the 2018 season, between high Single-A and Double-A, he went 10-6 with a 2.49 ERA. Over 119 1/3 innings he walked 31, fanned 121 and recorded a WHIP of 0.95.

It would seem pretty likely that the season-opening rotation comes from among the 11 pitchers mentioned above. But lurking in the wings and waiting for their chance is a small group that includes young pitchers that are now on the 40-man in Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Michael Baumann.

Right-hander Ashton Goudeau, 28, is also on the 40-man. He’s made more relief appearances in his pro career, but he made 16 starts in the Double-A Eastern League in 2019 and went 3-3 with a 2.07 ERA. Knuckleballer Mickey Jannis, who has made 103 career minor league starts, is also on the camp roster. So are lefty Josh Rogers, returning from two surgeries; right-hander Conner Greene, who has 117 minor league starts to his credit; right-hander Konner Wade, who has 103 and right-hander Spenser Watkins with 96.

Any of these pitchers could also find their way to a bullpen job come opening day. That could be another way, for instance, that the club keeps one of the Rule 5 pitchers.

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