For the first time in a few years, the Baltimore Orioles plan to begin the 2021 season with a rotation that fans can dream on. They’re not quite ready to challenge the Yankees or the Rays for the division, but neither will their roster be flooded with journeymen and July trade candidates – at least not entirely.
Make no mistake, the Orioles will count as a surprise if they don’t finish in fifth place in the East, but songs of progress are sung in many different keys. The Orioles are entering Year Three under GM Mike Elias, which under most circumstances should call for the beginnings of the organization’s on-field transformation. Last year’s 25-35 record was a step in the right direction after back-to-back 100-loss seasons, but that still put them on a roughly 95-loss pace over a full campaign.
Progress for the Orioles this season begins in the rotation where youngsters Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin plan to slot behind John Means and Alex Cobb, per MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubatko. Means and Cobb hardly make for a bone-chilling front of the rotation, but there ought not to be much question about their ability to stick in the rotation for a full season.
Means has been worth roughly 2.2 bWAR per 150 innings over his first two seasons, though there’s a stark contrast between his first half of 2019 and the time since. The 33-year-old Cobb, meanwhile, returned to form in 2020 with a 4.30 ERA/4.87 FIP in 52 1/3 innings over 10 starts. He’s a back-end starter at this point and could serve as eventual trade bait, but at least for the first half of the season, he ought to help protect the bullpen from overuse.
Where Means and Cobb secure the floor, Akin and Kremer raise the ceiling. The right-handed Kremer made four starts in 2020 with a 4.82 ERA/2.76 FIP. He struggled a bit with command (5.8 BB/9), but a high-spin fastball deployed up and a cutter with 4.4 inches of horizontal movement helped him secure 10.6 K/9 in his first taste of big league action. Kremer came to the Orioles as part of the Manny Machado package, but his slider looked like a difference-making pitch at the time, and his arsenal has shifted in the years since.
What that means isn’t yet clear. There’s been some question about whether Kremer has stuff enough to stick in the rotation long-term, but the Orioles are going to give the soon-to-be 25-year-old a chance. Internally, he might be their best chance for a first-division rotation type before prospects like Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall start arriving in a couple years.
The southpaw Akin boasts a similar profile, but from the other side. Both pitchers surrendered hard contact in 2020, but they still showed enough to manage a spot in the rotation. If either one can build on their 2020 performance to take firm hold of rotation innings, the Orioles could continue to grow their win totals in 2021. On the other hand, none of the front four seem particularly likely to develop into a frontline arm. They still seek high-impact talent in that department. The Orioles rotations ranked 19th in fWAR, 23rd in ERA and 24th in FIP, so they’ll need to improve to make much hay in the American League.
On the offensive end, Adley Rutschman has the chance to be the kind of impact player an organization can rally around. The former first overall draft choice will begin 2021 in Double-A, noted Kubatko. As Rutchschman nears, Elias should feel some pressure to field a competitive team around him. Even if Akin and Kremer aren’t exactly Johnson and Schilling, they can begin to lay the groundwork for a professional roster.