The Orioles’ starting pitching was not only better in 2020 than it was in 2019, its depth also improved.
In 2019, the Orioles ended the season with Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb and John Means as starters, and with Asher Wojciechowski expected to return to the rotation.
The Orioles used 18 different starters in 2019 and had an ERA of 5.57.
In the 60-game 2020 season, the Orioles’ 10 starters had a 5.09 ERA.
In 2019, the Orioles used an opener eight times. This past season, they didn’t use it at all.
Bundy, who was entering his second year of arbitration eligibility, was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels for four minor league right-handers in December. Aaron Brooks, who started 12 games, signed in South Korea, and Gabriel Ynoa, who started 13, signed in Japan.
The Orioles sought depth by drafting two pitchers in the Rule 5 draft, Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker, who were returned to Houston and the Chicago Cubs, and signing Kohl Stewart, who later opted out for health reasons because of Covid-19.
They also brought back David Hess and three 2019 starters on minor league contracts –Ty Blach, Thomas Eshelman and Chandler Shepherd.
The Orioles also signed veteran left-handers Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone to minor league contracts, They ended up making the team, but both were gone by the end of August.
LeBlanc suffered an elbow injury on August 23rd, and Milone was traded to Atlanta for two minor league players to be named later on August 30th.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the Orioles’ starting pitching going forward.
Means finished strong
In five September starts, Means had a 2.48 ERA, the best in any month since June 2019, when he had a 1.71 ERA.
Means also had five starts in September 2019. His ERA then was 3.82.
This past September, Means had the best WHIP, 0.828, of any month in his two-year big league career and struck out more than a batter per inning for the first time.
He had a slow start because of arm fatigue and then he had to deal with the death of his father.
Manager Brandon Hyde helped Means get back on track after he appeared to be overthrowing. He regained command of his fastball and looked stronger than ever.
It’s possible the Orioles will trade Cobb, who has one year remaining on his four-year, $57 million deal. It’s also possible that 2020 baseball economics dissuade another team from assuming the final year of the contract or that the Orioles pay part of it to make a trade.
In 2019, Cobb ended up on the 60-day injured list after hip and knee surgeries. He made just three starts.
Cobb wasn’t spectacular in 2020, but had a 4.30 ERA in 10 starts and looked at times like the pitcher the Orioles thought they were getting when they signed him.
If he’s back with the Orioles, he can a possible trade chip later in the season.
Young arms show promise
The Orioles brought up left-hander Keegan Akin, right-hander Dean Kremer and left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, giving them 11 starts in the final four weeks of the season.
Akin struck out 12.3 batters per nine innings, better stats than he produced at Triple-A Norfolk in 2019. Kremer didn’t allow a home run in 18 2/3 innings.
The Orioles had Akin, Kremer and Zimmermann in spring training, but none was a contender to make the team. All three could be back next year.
Behind them are two more promising pitchers, right-hander Michael Baumann, whose 2020 season ended early at the alternate site at Bowie because of an elbow injury, and left-hander Zac Lowther.
Neither is expected to begin 2021 with the Orioles but both could end the season with them as could DL Hall, the left-hander who was supposed to start 2020 with Double-A Bowie.
Because the young pitchers didn’t threw many major league innings in 2020, they can’t be counted on for full seasons in 2021.
The Orioles probably will have a number of candidates to back them up.
One is Jorge López, who had a 6.34 ERA in nine games, six of them starts.
If Stewart is back on the 40-man roster, he could be another. So could Eshelman, who had a 3.80 ERA in 12 games, four of them starts.
The Orioles are likely to sign another starter or two to minor league contracts as they did with LeBlanc and Milone since there might be a number of candidates in a larger-than-normal free-agent list.
They also could try to grab a starting candidate in the Rule 5 draft. They’ll draft fifth.
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