Scrap the scrap heap: When baseball resumes, a plea for the Orioles to pass on past-it pitchers
The Orioles have filled out their rotation depth with veterans on minor league deals in recent years. This spring, they should refrain for several reasons.
Maybe as early as next week, or perhaps deeper into the spring, an extreme version of the Orioles’ typical offseason will play out when it comes to roster building.
The lockout will end, there will be a mad scramble for players to find homes, and the Orioles will end up casting lines for a few bargains on minor league deals for veteran pitchers or inexpensive major league contracts for infield pieces.
On the latter: sure, why not? But on the former, I suggest considering an alternative and not bothering at all.
It might not make the Orioles any better, but it will serve the purpose that this fourth year of rebuilding baseball needs to get settled once and for all: which of their own pitchers can be part of their next winning staff.
It would be a departure from the Matt Harvey/Wade LeBlanc/Tommy Milone method of filling out their rotation that has become a staple the last few years, but so too was sneaking in the largest free agent deal given out by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias before the lockout was imposed. They reached an agreement with veteran right-hander Jordan Lyles that guarantees him $7 million, with $6 million in the form of a signing bonus and salary for 2022 and either a $1 million buyout or a club option for $11.5 million.
Whether that proves to be a good deal for the Orioles will come down to whether Lyles continues to be as durable as he’s shown in the past, how much of the late-season improvement thanks to de-emphasizing his four-seamer and working more with his sinker and curveball can be sustained, and whether the new dimensions at Camden Yards can reduce last year’s league-leading total of 38 home runs allowed.
Either way, it’s less of a wild card than hoping someone comes good on a minor league deal, and allows the Orioles to further eschew those types of players if they so choose. The benefit would be clear if they do.
As it stands, they have a half-dozen pitchers who have at one point or another been well-regarded prospects who debuted in the big leagues in the last two seasons: Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Alexander Wells, and Zac Lowther. All six, in one form or fashion, had their development severely disrupted by the pandemic and the need to keep their arms healthy coming out of it.
They all also have shown flashes of having what it takes to succeed in the big leagues after superlative minor league careers, and even with a long season ahead and plenty of innings to cover, any impediments to the Orioles being able to fairly evaluate them on a substantial run in the major league rotation next offseason simply shouldn’t exist.
Innings limits shouldn’t be a limiting factor the way it was in the past, as most had close to full seasons in 2021. Some of that came in the majors, and the experiences gained by Akin (17 starts) plus Kremer and Zimmermann (13 starts apiece) should mean they’re better prepared to build on what they learned than their 2020 cameos left them.
Maybe the Orioles will do this, not like what they find out, and will lose games because of it. It won’t be the difference between making the playoffs and not. But an ERA that starts with a five or a six from a homegrown player at least serves a long-term purpose. That kind of output from a stop-gap is just kicking the can down the road.
They could also zag in the other direction and add a few more Lyles types, which of these two unlikely options seems less likely than the one just explored but would be fantastic banter. Absent any meaningful aspirations for the season other than to eventually showcase top prospects Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez and prepare to flip the switch to compete in 2023, this season would be a fine one for Elias to show he’s willing to spend that kind of money on a larger scale. It would be kind of a win-win to do it, too.
If he signs one or two more pitchers who command legitimate big league deals and can structure them similarly to Lyles’ deal, then the Orioles have a chance to address their most glaring weakness below market-rate and possibly build up some more trade capital if the players perform. (Or, they could just keep them and have good pitchers, and the bullpen can improve by those means as well.)
If not, he will have his own examples of why building a rotation through free agency often doesn’t work to cite when the Orioles are going out and trading prospects for proven starters in the coming years. He will have done what many have asked him to do – spend on pitching – and if it doesn’t work, he’ll have been right not to before.
Either outcome will be different than the past. The Orioles gone to great lengths to protect the pitchers who thrived in that 2019 honeymoon period and impressed in the new pitching program, but two – Akin and Kremer – only have one minor league option remaining and the evaluation period for the team as a whole is closing with Rutschman and company’s pending arrivals. If anyone is keeping them from getting their last best shot to seize a rotation spot here, it should be someone the Orioles believe in enough to commit more than a minor league deal with a camp invite to.
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