For as long as the in-game crab shuffle and hot dog races have been part of the Orioles experience, so, too, has the idea that they need starting pitching.
Good or bad, rebuilding or running it back with a contending group one last time, it’s largely been accepted that no matter how good the starting rotation is, it needs to be better.
We’re about to find out how true that really is.
Top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez’s pending return to the Orioles’ rotation after a dominant remedial spell at Triple-A Norfolk — 54 strikeouts in 37 1/3 innings, with a 1.69 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP — for Monday’s game begins a two-week sprint to the Aug. 1 trade deadline that will go a long way toward helping them decide whether they need to add to the top of their rotation for what now feels like an inevitable playoff run.
Those who optimistically envisioned this team making the playoffs probably did not envision this group of starting pitchers taking the ball in the postseason. Then again, no one really expected the Orioles to be where they are now — riding an eight-game winning streak on either side of the All-Star break, within a game of first place at 57-35, and boasting one of the game’s best records — with this group taking the ball every night.
Adding Rodriguez — whose high-octane fastball and the potential to have both an elite slider and changeup give him the makings of a front-end starter — will be accretive as long as he is at his best. He has as much playoff experience as anyone in the rotation not named Kyle Gibson: none (and Gibson has thrown all of 3 1/3 innings in the postseason). But the question in these two weeks is whether he can add enough to the starting pitching mix to allow the front office to feel confident rolling with this group through the second half if a big-name addition doesn’t come together.
All that’s a lot to put on a 23-year-old pitcher who ended up in the minors because of challenges in his first major league stint. He has the stuff to be dominant, which is different from the Orioles starters he’ll be rejoining in the rotation who have, at times, been dominant themselves.
Sunday’s starter, Kyle Bradish, fits that bill of late. He lowered his ERA to 3.05 by carrying a shutout into the eighth inning against the Marlins, and he’s been the Orioles’ best cumulative starter since this time last season. His good friend Dean Kremer has been at his best this month as well, bringing his ERA down to 4.59. When he’s good, Kremer can carve up opposing lineups with the best of them; his second-half to-do list is limiting the damage when he doesn’t have it.
Tyler Wells, who it should be noted struggled down the stretch last year and has already thrown more innings this season than he has since 2018 in the minors, has a 3.18 ERA and league-best 0.927 WHIP.
Gibson, meanwhile, has been serviceable, and the Orioles have won 11 of his 20 starts. Some of those have been better than others, but when someone pitches to contact as often as he does, the idea of poor batted-ball luck is harder to hand-wave away.
Beyond them, the options are surprisingly thin. Cole Irvin will be called upon to help spell starters as the Orioles try to manage workloads down the stretch, but he was pitching relatively well before losing his spot to Rodriguez, which speaks volumes. Austin Voth is injured and not really built up, and DL Hall remains in Sarasota trying to build strength and velocity.
Having Rodriguez as a legitimate rotation piece deepens the group for sure, but the question isn’t about depth; it’s about quality. Teams typically need only four starters in a playoff series. If Rodriguez pitches well, and the current group continues on its upward trajectory, the idea that the Orioles need to upgrade their rotation at the deadline could lose steam.
It’s not as if there are a ton of players you’d expect the Orioles to want to acquire for a front-end starter: under control for at least another season, not very expensive now or next year, and serving as a clear upgrade. Shane Bieber’s elbow soreness might keep him in Cleveland. Corbin Burnes’ Brewers are in first place in the NL Central and probably need to stay there if they want to make the playoffs.
The list of those types of options is a short one, so knowing the Orioles could have Rodriguez supplementing what could continue to be an impressive core of developing starters entering their primes for this October run might prove enough.
More likely, the Orioles will sift through the lower-cost (but much deeper) group of rental starters to add another pitcher into the mix who they can weave into the rotation and continue to give breaks to Wells, Bradish and Kremer as the season progresses and their inning counts climb. Then, the best of the group get to pitch in October, with the others shoring up the middle innings and serving as a bridge to Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista.
That’s probably how it plays out regardless of whether Rodriguez’s work in Norfolk leads to better results in the three starts he has before the deadline. If it does, these Orioles will improve on an already impressive circumstance and, quite possibly, make us all leave our priors behind, after all these years, when it comes to the rotation needing help.