Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall kept using a variation of the same word last Saturday during the Orioles’ Birdland Caravan. The two Orioles prospects spoke of competition, of competing, of the need to compete, and they did so because they know the cast of candidates for Baltimore’s rotation is deeper than it has been in years.
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said there are 12 options on the team’s 40-man roster to make the opening-day rotation. There are only five spots. (Elias expressed skepticism about the team opting for a six-man rotation.)
On Feb. 16, those 12 options will be among the Orioles pitchers and catchers to descend on Sarasota, Florida, for the first organized workout of spring training.
There will be Rodriguez and Hall, aiming to make the starting rotation for the first time in their careers. There will be Cole Irvin and Kyle Gibson, the lone offseason additions to the group, as well as holdovers Kyle Bradish, Dean Kremer and Tyler Wells. A host of others are also in the conversation and could vault into the Orioles’ plans with a strong spring showing.
And that’s before left-hander John Means — who’s recovering from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery — returns midway through the season.
“It’s never set in stone until we get through camp,” Elias said. “And while that’s a lot of open spots, I’m pleased with the fact we have basically 12 people on the 40-man roster that’re going to be in the competition.”
The Orioles entered the offseason aiming to add veteran experience to their pitching staff, and while they opted against competing at the top end of the market, Baltimore signed Gibson on a one-year deal worth $10 million and traded for Irvin from the Oakland Athletics.
Those two, so far, are the only pitchers with their names written into the rotation in something more permanent than pencil.
“Gibson and Irvin, I think, with their seasons the last few years and the years they’ve put in, are firmly in the plans,” Elias said.
Gibson, with his nearly 10 years of major league service time, experienced a World Series run with the Philadelphia Phillies last year (even if he only pitched 2 1/3 innings in the postseason). Irvin completed consecutive seasons with 178 and 181 innings, respectively.
Neither are the flashiest pickups, with Gibson’s 5.05 ERA last year and Irvin’s low strikeout tallies. But they’re innings eaters who offer stability to a rotation that will include mainly unproven options.
The inside track
Rodriguez has tuned out the noise. He heard that Elias is pulling for him to make the opening day rotation, but he knows that decision is ultimately a month or more away and depends on what he does in Sarasota.
Of course, Rodriguez might’ve made his major league debut last year. Instead, a lat strain sidelined him right on the cusp of his call-up and leaves him with a likely innings limit whenever he does appear.
“Competing for a spot last year, competing for a spot this year, it’s something that’s always there,” Rodriguez said. “Really, just focusing on going out each time I get the ball and throwing strikes.”
Rodriguez isn’t alone in that hunt, joining a group of starters who established themselves with strong displays in the majors last year. But still, none of Bradish, Kremer or Wells threw more than 125 1/3 innings last year — a mark well below the threshold considered for an established starter.
“The rest of the guys either weren’t in the rotation last year or were and only pitched 100 to 120 innings and were rookies,” Elias said, “so any time that’s the case, you go back into spring training with a competition to get into the rotation. Look, a lot of those guys had good seasons last year. I think they have inside tracks.”
Wells successfully navigated the adjustment from an innings-limit-forced bullpen role to a starting pitcher once more, throwing 103 2/3 innings with a 4.25 ERA. Bradish experienced the knocks that can find a rookie early in his career but rebounded to allow three earned runs or fewer in 12 of his final 13 starts. And Kremer, the best of the three, held a 3.23 ERA and managed an ERA+ of 124 — meaning he was 24% better than the average big league pitcher.
All of them should make the roster in one form or another. But the competition for the remaining three rotation roles behind Irvin and Gibson will be tight, and could be altered massively with strong showings from those lower in the pecking order.
The worst outing of Hall’s major league career is also the one he learned the most from. The left-hander came up, gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings to the Tampa Bay Rays, and then returned to Triple-A Norfolk in an attempt to learn how to become a reliever.
“It was kind of part of the plan to bring him up as a reliever to give him a taste of the big leagues, to help the team in the stretch, but also manage his innings and workloads last year,” Elias said.
But this year?
“The plan was always to go back to him starting because he still has a lot of potential there,” Elias said.
Hall could be a dark-horse rotation candidate, with his lively fastball, sweeping slider and deceptive changeup. He could wind up in the bullpen again or start out in the minors for some more fine tuning.
But whatever the case, Hall is eager to prove himself after pitching to a 3.60 ERA in 10 relief appearances.
“I’m comfortable with whatever,” Hall said. “Any time I can go out there and toe the rubber, I don’t care where it’s at, who it’s for or what role it’s in.”
Hall is joined on the bubble by right-hander Austin Voth, who was a late-season revelation after Baltimore claimed him off waivers from the Washington Nationals. Voth rediscovered his form with a 3.04 ERA in 83 innings and signed a new one-year deal with a 2024 team option to avoid arbitration.
The outside looking in
For some, 2022 was a mixed bag.
Right-hander Spenser Watkins allowed seven earned runs across 34 innings between June 25 and Aug. 1. Then he conceded fewer than three earned runs in just three of his final nine appearances, a regression that might leave him further out of the rotation running.
Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann opened the season looking like the next coming of Means, throwing nine shutout innings between two outings. Zimmermann fell out of the majors by June, though, having allowed 33 runs in 30 1/3 innings across six disastrous starts.
For others, 2022 didn’t feature much major league action.
Right-hander Mike Baumann rode the shuttle from Norfolk to Baltimore and back as a frequent fill-in option, and in his 34 1/3 innings for the Orioles, he managed a 4.72 ERA.
Left-hander Drew Rom rose from Double-A Bowie to Triple-A Norfolk, racked up strikeouts and earned a 4.43 ERA between the levels. Rom, a lesser-known prospect than Rodriguez and Hall, is perhaps the candidate with the longest odds to make the opening day rotation.
They wouldn’t be options if there wasn’t a chance. But for these four, an especially impressive spring will be required to jump into opening day consideration.