CHICAGO — The Orioles made few offseason moves to bolster their major league roster, and now one of the players they did acquire will spend at least the next two weeks at Triple-A Norfolk, hoping to find a semblance of consistency to his pitching again.
Left-hander Cole Irvin was optioned to the Tides on Thursday night after he allowed six runs in four innings during Baltimore’s 8-7 series-ending win against the Oakland Athletics. Across his three starts this year, Irvin allowed 15 runs in 12 2/3 innings, including eight walks. The free passes, particularly, were both bemusing and concerning for a pitcher who prides himself on working deep into games.
“Just need to do my job better,” Irvin said after Thursday’s start. “That’s all it is.”
The demotion of one of Baltimore’s two offseason starting pitching additions was certainly eye-opening. But the reasoning behind it follows logically — and provides immediate help for a bullpen that has been taxed by the lack of deep outings from starting pitchers.
Irvin’s next scheduled start would have been Wednesday against the Washington Nationals. Right-hander Kyle Bradish, who is scheduled to make a rehab start Friday for Double-A Bowie, is eligible to be activated from the 15-day injured list Wednesday and could start in Irvin’s place.
Plus, with off days Monday and Thursday, the Orioles can make do without a fifth starter next week. They can’t make do without bullpen assistance, however, and they got it in the form of right-handers Yennier Canó and Spenser Watkins, who were called up to replace Irvin and left-hander Keegan Akin, who was placed on the paternity list.
“We have kind of a unique week next week with a couple off days, but we also want to see Cole get right,” manager Brandon Hyde said Friday. “He’s got a lot better command than he showed in his first few starts, and we think he’s going to be a huge part of our rotation going forward. We’d just like to see him get a couple starts under his belt in Triple-A, kind of get his confidence back, get his command back.”
In Watkins and Canó, Baltimore gains two fresh arms for a bullpen that has thrown 54 1/3 innings entering Friday’s series against the Chicago White Sox, the fourth most in the majors. Watkins holds a 2.70 ERA in 10 innings for Norfolk this year and can provide length out of the bullpen, and Canó has struck out four batters in three innings.
Watkins was especially important last season for the Orioles, serving as a spot starter to cover for injuries. He threw 105 1/3 innings with a 4.70 ERA.
Canó wasn’t as consistent, walking five batters in 4 1/3 innings with Baltimore last year. But apart from an early game in which he allowed four runs, Canó made six scoreless appearances in spring training.
“Spenser is built up as a starter, so he’s going to add some length as another long guy that we need right now,” Hyde said. “And then Canó is off to a really good start in Triple-A.”
Canó added, through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, that he has focused on continuing to throw strikes. “And I think I did a good job with that in Triple-A, and I’ll try to do the same thing here.”
For Irvin, who must spend at least 15 days in the minors unless he replaces an injured player, the minimum of two starts he’s expected to make are an opportunity to find the command of the strike zone that has eluded him thus far.
After struggling Thursday, he downplayed the idea of reading too much into his early struggles.
“it’s just a small stretch,” Irvin said. “If we’re talking about these first three starts, I’m wondering how the next 27-plus are going to go. And that’s my objective: to make all 30. I’m trying to do my best to put my best foot forward, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. That’s all I can do.”
His walk rate of 12.7% is 7.8 percentage points higher than last year. Batters are hitting .315 against Irvin. His changeup, especially, hasn’t looked like itself, with negative-1.1 runs above average, according to FanGraphs. Irvin’s four-seam fastball and slider also carry negative runs-above-average measures, but his changeup measured as Irvin’s best pitch each of his last two seasons, with measures of 7.9 and 6.1 runs above average in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
“A little bit more confidence with his changeup, being able to slow it down a little bit,” Hyde said when asked what he hoped to see from Irvin in the minors. “But just overall, better command — command he showed in spring training, and command he showed the last couple years in the big leagues.”
Before Thursday’s start, Irvin thought he might have found a solution for the arm-side misses to the left of the plate that led to four walks against the New York Yankees. He focused on his left foot and how to drive with the center of his foot off the mound.
But the focus didn’t solve his issues entirely, and now he’ll try to right the ship in Norfolk.
“Someone that prides themselves on getting [deep] into ballgames, I haven’t been able to do that yet,” Irvin said after the game, but before news of the demotion broke. “I’m not very happy with letting some teammates down, and so just need to get better and keep my head down and keep working.”