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How the Orioles' starter gambit with Tyler Wells could foretell the future of their pitching program
Tyler Wells going from Rule 5 reliever to the Orioles' rotation is commendable, but the in-between might be where the team's pitching future lies.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde made an interesting callback Thursday to reporters in Florida while discussing another Opening Day starting assignment for John Means.
He mentioned how when Means sneaked onto the club back into 2019, the Orioles had Nate Karns on the roster, a nominal starter who wasn’t really built up innings-wise and thus was christened an opener.
Those were heady times, when the rival Tampa Bay Rays were taking the concept of a bullpen game – which have been around forever but mostly as emergencies – and using it to their advantage. They’d start a right-handed reliever, then typically have a “bulk” pitcher – often a left-hander – behind him to capture the benefit of that pitcher not having to face the top of the lineup a third time and maybe creating some platoon edges.
The Orioles kind of used that verbiage in 2019, but it was never to gain an advantage. It was because they were in triage mode from the first weekend of the season on. Their lack of starting pitching depth and generally underwhelming pitching staff meant they’d go back to the bullpen game well often, and eventually they started calling it such.
Four years later, Hyde quite possibly brought that full circle, if providing me the springboard for this thought counts as closing said circle. On the same day he declared Means the Opening Day starter, he said the hard-throwing Tyler Wells would also be in the rotation.
Kudos to the Orioles for having this vision with Wells and seeing it through, even if it’s just the beginning of it, and fair play to Wells for being able to handle it after so much time off from starting. If it works, and maybe even if it doesn’t, this feels like it could be the start of the Orioles’ actualizing what appears to be their vision for developing major league caliber pitchers.
The Rays pioneered the opener, yes, but their advanced pitching development program has also churned out plenty of talent within a specific mold in recent years. Conventional wisdom says a starting pitcher needs three major league caliber pitching to dominate, and absent that, many simply become short-outing relievers.
Tampa Bay has maximized the talent of the pitchers they have by essentially building them up to be bulk pitchers, capable of turning a lineup over once, pitching three or four innings with the weapons they have, and passing the baton before they tire or the opponent figures them out.
Having never seen Wells start at this level, there’s absolutely no writing off that he can do it. But it’s definitely not a stretch to see him being most effective in three or four inning bursts, similar to what the other Orioles pitcher being stretched out for this possibility in camp could be: Jorge Lopez.
The evidence is much clearer with someone like Lopez, who has electric stuff and the pitch mix to start but struggles to get deep enough into games. Still, combine those two in non-traditional length roles and mix in whichever of last year’s rookie crop makes the team with them in the rest of the rotation/bulk mix, and the Orioles can utilize the pitchers they have internally to get the most out of the staff as opposed to just get to the next day without their backup catcher pitching.
The issues for pitchers like Dean Kremer or Keegan Akin haven’t been what happens when they get deep in games; it’s actually getting to that point without making crippling mistakes. Bruce Zimmermann is probably adjacent to this conversation, given his pitchability and fastball velocity, though it’s easy to envision him, Zac Lowther, or Alexander Wells giving opposing hitters who had just been timing up Wells and Lopez in the mid-90s quite a hard time. Any of those lefties could complement Mike Baumann nicely as well.
I know. Here I am again, bright-siding what could possibly be just another way for the Orioles to try and get by and ascribing actual intentions to be better on something that could just be more triage. I get that. Only a handful of people know for sure, but absent them coming out and saying it, this is what we have.
What there’s actual evidence for, however, is how this could just be the entry point to the Orioles’ long-term pitching plans under director of pitching and pitching coach Chris Holt.
Mike Elias earlier this week noted how Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, and Kyle Bradish are the team’s top pitching prospects. Let’s put them out of this conversation for a moment. The top two, and possibly Bradish, are viewed as traditional, deep-into-game starters.
The rest of the pitching depth chart looks much different. There are talented recent high school draftees in Brenan Hanifee and Carter Baumler who have starter-quality stuff but are coming off Tommy John surgery. There are the mess of pitchers acquired alongside Bradish in the Orioles’ handful of trades with the Los Angeles Angels: Kyle Brnovich, Zach Peek, Garrett Stallings, and Jean Pinto.
And absent much substantial investment in pitchers in the draft under Elias, save for Baumler in 2020, there are a dozens of pitchers and undrafted free agents from the last three drafts whose timing entering pro ball has really weighed on their development. The 2019 draftees looked good in their signing summers but were shelved for all of 2020 when the season was canceled. The 2020 signees didn’t have full college seasons or short-season pro opportunities, and the 2021 draftees were all coming off long college seasons but didn’t get on the mound much the year before.
All, as a result, have been managed carefully by the Orioles in the interest of their health. Pretty much all of them pitched well in the three- and four-inning stints the Orioles had scripted for them in 2021.
They all also have specific pitch traits that qualify as possible big-league weapons. Rodriguez said as much as he saw some of the best ones early in spring training.
“One thing that I really noticed is each pitcher has something that they do very well,” he said in a Zoom call with reporters recently. “It’s not like a bunch of guys with just average stuff. This guy over here has just an elite curveball, or this guy has an elite changeup, slider. Everybody has something really special about him, and once you find that out and figure it out and watch him pitch, you can see it. Everybody is different. There’s no two pitchers here that are the same.”
Watching how these pitchers – and there are too many to name – fare as the reigns are loosened in 2022 will be the singularly most fascinating part about the upcoming minor league season for the Orioles. Any of them showing the blend of velocity, pitch mix, and stamina to be legitimate big league starters would be a boon for the Orioles, considering what they already have pushing toward the majors.
Even if the downside outcome occurs with many of them and they aren’t as effective getting deeper into games or can’t develop the third pitch that will make them a big league starter, further honing of the fastball movement and plus secondary pitch so many of them have will allow them to pitch three innings at a time in the big leagues.
There are a lot of pitchers who fit this mold within the Orioles’ organization right now. They acquire players via the draft and trades for pitches they believe can be major league weapons, try to enhance those while bringing along the rest of the arsenal, and hope to get a big league contributor out of the deal.
Sounds kind of like the Rule 5 draft, where Wells came from. It might be a bit of a stretch to make that connection. It might not be to say his upcoming role might chart the path to a big league future for so many pitchers in the Orioles organization.
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