Mike Baumann was the first. Who could be next?
Baumann on Thursday became the first Orioles starting pitcher to get word from the coaching staff that he was being shifted to a bullpen role. With still nine starters vying to begin the season in the rotation, it’s likely that others will be transitioned into relievers.
What first needs to be settled, though, is who the club’s five starters will be to open the campaign. While the five front-runners in February remain in prime position to claim those spots, there are still about two turns through the rotation left before spring training ends.
The Orioles began spring training with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias saying that 12 pitchers would be competing for the starting rotation. Three of those names — Baumann, Drew Rom and DL Hall — are no longer options to break camp in the rotation. Rom was optioned last week, while Hall, who has yet to pitch in an exhibition this spring, won’t be ramped up enough to start major league games in early April.
That leaves nine pitchers theoretically competing for those remaining spots: the five with inside tracks — Kyle Gibson, Cole Irvin, Dean Kremer, Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez — and four others who combined to start 73 games for the club in 2022 — Tyler Wells, Spenser Watkins, Austin Voth and Bruce Zimmermann.
“[Baumann] is really the only guy we’ve taken out of the mix there,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Everybody else — Bradish, Kremer, Irvin, Grayson, Gibson, Wells, Voth, Watkins, Zimmermann — there’s still a lot of starters here in camp, and we’re still going to stretch all these guys out.”
While it might seem settled that the former five names will be the ones who start against the Boston Red Sox and the Texas Rangers to open the season, Hyde said Friday the club will keep the other four progressing toward a starter’s workload. That gives the Orioles choices — whether that’s to have them start in Triple-A, transition them into a two-inning or long-relief role or just to have as insurance in case of injury. And anything could change throughout the season if Hall becomes a starter and when left-hander John Means returns in the summer.
One option the Orioles have is to employ a six-man rotation. Elias said in February that the Orioles had considered that as a possibility, but then downplayed the likelihood that the team would roster an extra starter. Hyde delivered a similar sentiment Friday.
“We talk about all sorts of scenarios, but we’re more than likely going to have a five-man rotation,” he said.
Hyde listed three reasons a six-man rotation is suboptimal. The main reason — and the one Elias cited before spring training — is that it puts extra strain on the bullpen. With MLB’s roster restrictions limiting the number of pitchers on a 26-man roster to 13, having six starters means, obviously, one fewer arm to use in the bullpen. The other reasons, Hyde said, include the challenge a six-man rotation would pose with optioning players and overall roster construction as well as April having more days off than most other months during the season.
It’s also possible, despite Elias repeatedly saying he envisions Rodriguez being on the opening day roster, that the Orioles send their top pitching prospect down to Triple-A to begin the year, especially since his innings will be managed all season.
The 23-year-old was tagged for four runs in the fourth inning of his third start March 12. On Saturday, he unraveled the second time through the order again, allowing five runs in 3 2/3 innings.
“I’ve been with this organization [since 2018],” Rodriguez said. “I’m really not trying to go out there and show ‘em anything. I’m just trying to go out, throw strikes and get ready for the season.”
Catcher James McCann wouldn’t go as far as saying Rodriguez is ready to be a major leaguer, but he called his stuff — especially his changeup — “elite.”
“It’s above my pay grade to tell you whether or not he’s ready to be in a rotation or not,” McCann said. “But stuff-wise, no doubt he’s ready.”
The most likely candidates to move to the bullpen are Wells and Voth because of their experience as relievers. Watkins and Zimmermann would likely be long relievers if they’re in the bullpen, while Wells and Voth have the flexibility to be one-inning, two-inning or bulk relievers.
Wells, a 6-foot-8 right-hander, was one of the Orioles’ best starters in 2022 before suffering an oblique strain in late July, later ending the campaign with a 4.25 ERA in 103 2/3 innings. But he was perhaps better as a reliever in 2021, when he ended the season as Baltimore’s closer.
Wells has struggled in his first three outings this spring, allowing 11 hits and nine runs in seven innings. He starts Sunday in the road portion of the Orioles’ split-squad doubleheader.
“I think everyone knows what I’m capable of, and I showed that a lot last year and I showed that the year before,” Wells said. “This spring training, I think that I’ve also showed it. Because of a couple of bad results in some games doesn’t ever put me out of the fight. I’m always going to sit there and battle.”
While Wells’ 4.11 ERA in 2021 is similar to his 2022 mark, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which measures what the pitcher has most control over (walks, strikeouts and home runs) on an ERA-equivalent scale, was 3.63. Most notably, his fastball was almost 2 mph harder as a reliever, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was exactly two times better in 2021 (5.42) than in 2022 (2.71).
“We know the kind of ability Tyler has,” Hyde said. “Now, we’re just trying to make things fit. We’re a little more talented, we have more rotation depth. Tyler’s a really good pitcher. He’s off to a little bit of a tough start early in spring training, but we know what he’s capable of.”
Voth, meanwhile, has more experience in a big league bullpen than some of the Orioles’ top relievers, although with mixed results. The 30-year-old appeared in 70 games as a reliever between 2018 and 2022 before the Orioles acquired him from the Washington Nationals. Voth had a 10.13 ERA as a reliever with the Nationals to open 2022, but he had much more success with the Orioles, posting a 3.04 ERA as mostly a starter.
Voth, who allowed four runs (one earned) and struck out six in his three innings Saturday, might be the best bet to land in the bullpen, as he has no minor league options remaining. Wells has three options left, while Zimmermann has two and Watkins has one.
“I think I could be used in multiple situations,” said Voth, who first said he thinks he’s better suited as a starter. “As a reliever, you have to be able to at least do one [inning]. But I’m used to throwing multiple innings, so I’m comfortable there as well.”