The Orioles headed into the winter intent on adding a pair of veterans to the rotation, and while there was a substantial layoff between their first and second additions, with Kyle Gibson signing a one-year deal back on Dec. 5 and Cole Irvin not joining the staff until last Friday’s trade. That gives the O’s a pair of veterans who are plenty capable of eating up innings while still also leaving a fairly wide-open window for several younger arms to pitch their way into the team’s plans.
In all likelihood, the Orioles will wind up using ten or more starters over the course of the season. It’s commonplace for teams to cycle through far more than the five (or six) members of the Opening Day rotation — particularly younger teams like Baltimore, where the rotation will be composed primarily of yet-unproven starters and/or prospects whose workloads will be handled with care.
Kyle Gibson, RHP: Whether by design or by happenstance, the decision to bring in Gibson over 2022 staff innings leader Jordan Lyles wound up being a cost-neutral gambit, which will lead to inevitable comparisons between the two. The Orioles bought Lyles’ $11MM club option out for $1MM, then turned around and invested the exact same $10MM they saved into a one-year deal with Gibson.
The 35-year-old Gibson, like Lyles, is a workhorse by today’s standards. He’s averaged 29.875 starts per 162-game season, dating back to 2014, and made a full slate of 12 starts in the shortened 2020 season. He has a below-average strikeout rate with solid command and above-average ground-ball tendencies. The O’s are going to count on him for 30-plus starts and 160-plus innings, although if they’re not in contention when the trade deadline rolls around, it’s easy to see them putting Gibson on the market.
Cole Irvin, LHP: For the second time in as many weeks, I’m listing Irvin as a “lock” in a team’s rotation while profiling their various options on the back end of the staff. As noted on that rundown of the A’s rotation, there was always a chance that Irvin could be moved, though a midseason deal felt likelier. The O’s instead jumped to add Irvin as a durable source of innings.
Over the past two seasons, he’s made 62 starts of 4.11 ERA ball with a well below-average 16.8% strikeout rate but a superb 5.2% walk rate as a member of Oakland’s rotation. That’ll be the type of production they’re looking for not just this year but for the next several seasons. Irvin is controlled for another four years and won’t even be arbitration-eligible until next offseason.
There’s some risk in acquiring Irvin, who’s had far more success at the spacious Oakland Coliseum than on the road. Dating back to Opening Day 2021, the lefty owns a 3.44 ERA pitching in Oakland, where opponents have batted just .243/.288/.355 against him in nearly 800 plate appearances. In that same timeframe, Irvin’s road ERA is a more alarming 4.88, and opponents have pounced on him for a .285/.330/.491 slash. The O’s recently made their left field dimensions quite a bit more pitcher-friendly, but Irvin will still be facing some righty-heavy lineups within the AL East.
Pitchers who made 15+ starts in 2022
Dean Kremer, RHP: Kremer, 27, finished second on the Orioles with 125 1/3 innings pitched and notched a tidy 3.23 ERA last season despite a tepid 17% strikeout rate. Kremer, acquired from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, doesn’t miss bats or keep the ball on the ground, but he has a better-than-average walk rate. Any regression in his 0.79 HR/9 mark or his 77.8% left-on-base rate — he entered the season at 2.12 and 65.1%, respectively — could spike his ERA closer to his 4.54 SIERA. That said, Kremer at least looks the part of a back-of-the-rotation arm. And, now that he’s poised to take on a larger workload, he should at least be a decent source of average-ish innings.
Kyle Bradish, RHP: One of four minor leaguers acquired in the trade sending Dylan Bundy to the Angels, Bradish ranked third on the 2022 O’s with 117 2/3 innings pitched. He missed more bats and generated more grounders than Kremer but was also more prone to both walks and home runs. Bradish’s 4.90 ERA isn’t much to look at, but while fielding-independent metrics feel Kremer had some good fortune in ’22, the opposite is true of Bradish, whose FIP, SIERA, etc. are all quite a bit lower than his earned run average. Both pitchers seem capable of turning in an ERA in the low- or mid-4.00s over 150-plus innings.
Spenser Watkins, RHP: A former 30th-round pick by the Tigers, Watkins signed with the O’s as a minor league free agent in Jan. 2021 and debuted as a 29-year-old rookie later that season. He tallied 105 1/3 innings for the 2022 Orioles, posting a 4.70 ERA along the way. Among the 156 pitchers with at least 150 innings thrown since 2021, no one has posted a lower strikeout rate than Watkins’ 13.7%. His 7.9% swinging-strike rate is fifth-lowest among that group. Watkins has good command and has posted solid numbers in Triple-A over the past two seasons, but he feels like more of a depth option based on his big league work to date.
Tyler Wells, RHP: Baltimore’s most effective starter for much of the 2022 season, Wells carried a 3.09 ERA through his first 16 starts but needed a .225 average on balls in play to get there. That minimal BABIP and a 16.7% strikeout rate made the ERA look fairly dubious, and Wells indeed struggled mightily over his final few starts of the season. It should be noted that he missed more than a month due to a side injury and landed back on the shelf due to shoulder trouble to close out the year, but he nonetheless yielded a 7.39 ERA over his final 28 innings (seven starts). None of Wells, Kremer or Bradish miss bats at a particularly high level, nor do they possess elite command or ground-ball tendencies. They each have some appealing traits, however, and any of this trio could be a viable fourth/fifth starter.
Austin Voth, RHP: Continuing on that trend, Voth is another fly-ball pitcher with passable but not eye-catching strikeout and walk numbers. Claimed off waivers from the Nationals in early June, Voth made 17 starts and five relief appearances, pitching to a 3.04 ERA in that time. He’s not going to keep stranding 82% of the baserunners he allows — that’s 10 percentage points above the league average and above Voth’s career mark prior to 2022 — but he has the makings of a back-end starter, as he’s shown on occasion with the Nats in the past. Voth is out of minor league options, so he’s going to be on the roster either as a starter or as a swingman.
The Top Prospects
Grayson Rodriguez, RHP: The arm on which so many Orioles fans are pinning their hopes, the 23-year-old Rodriguez might have already made his big league debut were it not for a lat strain that sidelined him for half the 2022 season. Rodriguez, selected with the No. 11 pick of the 2018 draft, ranks among the sport’s top 15 overall prospects at each of Baseball America (6), MLB.com (7), ESPN (12) and The Athletic (15). A 6’5″, 220-pound righty armed with a four-pitch mix that’s headlined by an upper-90s heater and elite changeup, Rodriguez has genuine front-of-the-rotation potential.
Rodriguez is regarded as one of the sport’s five best pitching prospects, and now that the new CBA actually reward teams for promoting prospects via potential draft compensation based on Rookie of the Year voting, Rodriguez will have a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day rotation. The O’s may want to be cautious, as that lat strain limited him to just 75 2/3 innings in 2022 and a jump to a full season of MLB starts would probably more than double that total. Rodriguez might be the organization’s best starter right now, even though he hasn’t made his MLB debut. He posted a combined 2.62 ERA across three minor league levels and did so with a mammoth 36.6% strikeout rate against a 9.3% walk rate. He’s going to make his MLB debut in 2023 — it’s just a matter of when.
DL Hall, LHP: Unlike Rodriguez, Hall has already made his debut at the MLB level, although it didn’t go as the team had hoped. The former No. 21 overall pick pitched in 11 games — 10 of them relief appearances — but was tagged for nine runs on 17 hits and six walks. The resulting 5.93 ERA wasn’t particularly encouraging, but Hall fanned 19 opponents (29.7%) and issued walks at a lower clip in the Majors than he had in Triple-A (9.4% versus 14.2%).
Command issues have long been the primary flaw scouts see in Hall — a 6’2″ lefty with a heater that averaged 96.4 mph during that MLB debut and multiple plus or better secondary pitches. Baseball America pegs Hall’s fastball as an 80 on the 20-80 scale, while also crediting him with a plus-plus slider, a plus curve and a plus changeup. Unfortunately, all of that is accompanied by well below-average command. Hall has walked 13.4% of his opponents in the minors, and in his 18 minor league starts this past season, he completed six innings just once. Some of that is the Orioles being cautious with an arm they hold in high regard, but Hall averaged 75 pitches per outing despite averaging under four innings per start. Certainly, he could stand to be more efficient.
Last year’s 98 innings were a career-high for Hall, who’s also missed ample time due to injury in his pro career. Between the lack of innings and the shaky command, many scouting reports feel he’s likelier to be a dynamic reliever than a starter, but the O’s will likely give him some considerable leash as a starter because the ceiling is so high.
Other options on the 40-man
Mike Baumann, RHP: The 27-year-old Baumann was one of the organization’s best pitching prospects as recently as two years ago, but a flexor strain cost him time and he hasn’t topped 100 innings in either of the past two seasons. The O’s have begun working Baumann out of the bullpen more frequently, and given the number of rotation options the organization has, that could be a better path to the big leagues for him. There’s benefit to keeping him stretched out as a starter, of course, but Baumann made just 13 starts to 20 relief appearances last year.
Bruce Zimmermann, LHP: A local product the O’s acquired in the trade that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to the Braves back in 2018, Zimmermann has pitched in parts of three seasons for the O’s but never posted an ERA south of 5.00. In 145 MLB frames, he carries a 5.69 ERA (5.78 FIP, 4.43 SIERA) with a low 17.6% strikeout rate but a strong 5.7% walk rate. Zimmermann has averaged just 91.3 mph on his heater, and opponents have teed off on both that pitch and his changeup, clubbing an average of 2.23 homers per nine innings against the southpaw. Zimmermann still has a pair of option years remaining and has been good in Triple-A over the past two seasons, but he needs to find a way to curtail his issues with the long ball.
Drew Rom, LHP: The O’s selected Rom to the 40-man roster back in November to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. The 2018 fourth-rounder split the 2022 season between Double-A and Triple-A, logging a combined 4.43 ERA with a 27.1% strikeout rate, 8.9% walk rate and solid ground-ball tendencies. He’s not an overpowering lefty, but he’s pretty close to big league ready and the O’s clearly felt he’d have been poached in the Rule 5 had he gone unprotected. There are a lot of candidates for innings in Baltimore, but he’ll be in the mix to debut this year.
Recovering from injury
John Means, LHP: Baltimore’s best starter from 2019-21, Means logged a 3.73 ERA in 345 1/3 innings during that time and was named the Orioles’ Opening Day starter in 2022. He made just two starts last year before an elbow injury shelved him, however, and Means underwent Tommy John surgery in late April. That’ll take him out of the equation early in the year, but the O’s can hope for Means to return at some point over the summer. He only has two years of club control remaining.
As things stand, the Orioles have two veteran locks (Gibson, Irvin), a series of righties who achieved solid results despite middling K/BB and batted-ball profiles in 2022 (Kremer, Bradish, Wells, Voth) and a pair electric prospects (Rodriguez, Hall) — the former of which is arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball.
It’s a promising group, but the O’s will need to convert on Rodriguez and either see Hall improve his command or another young arm (e.g. Cade Povich) take a pronounced step forward in 2023. Baltimore’s system is rife with high-end bats but less stocked with arms. A rotation featuring Rodriguez (assuming he hits the ground running) and a host of No. 4 types is enough to compete, but it’s still a bit surprising that the team didn’t land a higher-profile arm this winter in an effort to bolster the starting staff. Perhaps the O’s are confident that an incumbent arm is on the cusp of a breakout, but right now Baltimore’s lineup looks more formidable than its rotation.