The calendar has finally flipped to 2021, bringing with it a sense of optimism and a bit of hope for better times after a year that left very few unscathed. On the baseball diamond, a new year brings the return of minor league baseball, a hopeful return of fans to games, a full schedule again, and a Baltimore Orioles season likely to feature a large handful of long-awaited prospects.
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Moves will still be made between now and Opening Day 2021, but we know that the Orioles aren’t going to suddenly decide to be aggressive in free agency. Any potential moves will be spring training arms (possible signings included at the end of the piece), infield depth, and more minor league signings which likely won’t have a major impact on a potential starting lineup, so it’s time to start looking ahead to the upcoming season.
I want to break down the different positional units in Baltimore, beginning part one of this series with the starting rotation. With each breakdown, I’ll take a look at some of the brightest storylines to follow, highlight some of the red flags to keep an eye out for, and take a peek at which top prospects and minor leaguers fans should pay attention to as the season progresses.
So, let’s begin with that look at the starting rotation. This unit has been largely set since the end of the 2020 season, with only one real opening in the starting five behind John Means, Alex Cobb, Dean Kremer, and Keegan Akin.
It’s easy to say that the rotation will be improved in 2021, which it should, but there’s potential to see real development and progression in the starting rotation next season. Looking back at the last two decades of Orioles baseball, four of the eight worst seasons by Orioles starters have occured over the last four years. Overall, the Orioles rank dead last among all MLB teams with a combined 18.6 fWAR from 2017-2020. For reference, Cleveland leads the way at 70.0 fWAR, with the Astros, Nationals, Dodgers, and Mets all at 50 fWAR or higher over that span.
Tom Eshelman, Asher Wojciechowski, Gabriel Ynoa, David Hess, Ty Blach, Chandler Shepherd, and other journeymen/Quad-A starters are now gone, leaving the Orioles with a rotation they can roll out with a small bit of confidence and hope that the starters going out every five days are potential pieces on a winning club (minus Cobb).
LHP John Means
Opening Day will likely feature 27-year-old lefty John Means on the bump, an All-Star in 2019 and brand new father who is already prepping his new addition for a big league career.
Means could have walked away last season after a sore arm delayed his 2020 season, followed by the passing of his father from pancreatic cancer, all while trying to navigate a pandemic and a baby on the way. But something clicked for John Means ahead of his September 8th start against the New York Mets.
Through his first six starts, Means failed to finish six full innings in each start, giving up 18 runs in 20 innings and striking out just 12. Over his final four starts, Means was one of the top pitchers in baseball, allowing four earned runs across 23.2 innings while walking three and striking out 30. All four starts went six innings, except for his outing against Tampa Bay on September 20th which fell just one out shy.
There were a lot of positive takeaways from his 2020 performance that bring a good bit of optimism about a potential successful run in 2021. There was a velocity spike across the board, with all four of his pitches seeing 2-4 mph increase in velo, including his fastball which averaged 93.8 mph. After some initial struggles in controlling this new velocity, Means pounded the strike zone at a higher rate last season, while producing more swings and misses and doing a fantastic job of limiting walks.
Means saw his swinging-strike rate jump from 9.9% to 12.5% and cut his walk rate from 6% to 4%. It was his high-spin fastball with increased velo that played a major role in those improvements. In 2019, Means produced a 19% whiff rate with his fastball, that number jumped to 29% last season. The pitch also held opponents to a .155 batting average (.270 in ‘19) and .249 wOBA (.325 in ‘19).
More whiffs, more strikeouts, less walks, and a big spike in ground balls (44% in 2020, up from 31%) are all a recipe for success, but there were still red flags.
Means saw his home run rate nearly double, up to 2.47/9 IP, and his once elite changeup took a step back. He saw a slight dip in swings and misses with his off-speed offering and hitters recorded a .510 slugging percentage and .275 average against his bread and butter pitch. Coming in at 85 mph, hitters feasted on his changeup, showing that all velo increases aren’t always a positive.
One thing that could help Means continue his progression is more curveballs. He doubled his curveball usage in 2020 and it produced fantastic results (.188 BAA, -18-degree launch angle, 28% whiff rate). Dropping in a 79 mph curve to keep hitters off-balanced and guessing will only help to keep his fastball as effective as it was last season. If the changeup bounces back, the Orioles will have themselves quite a pitcher.
The overall numbers weren’t great in 2019, but many of his profile changes are positive signs heading in next season. If he can put it all together, the results will come.
RHP Alex Cobb
Slotting in behind Means will likely be the veteran Alex Cobb.The 33-year-old is in his final season of a four-year/$57 million deal that has been another clunker for the Orioles. There really isn’t much to say here about Cobb, who may be traded by the end of the year, or will walk in free agency.
If Cobb can perform like he did in 2019, it’s a win for the Orioles. Cobb made 10 starts in 2019, averaging just over 5 IP/GS with a 4.87 FIP. He’s a backend starter at this point but if he can average 5-6 innings per start and make it through the year healthy, Cobb can help protect a young bullpen and could end up being more valuable to the Orioles by pitching out his contract than trading him away, which I just don’t see happening unless he has a very impressive first-half of the season.
LHP Keegan Akin
The real optimism lies with the two rookies, Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer. I’ve always been a bit higher on Akin than most after watching him live for the first time a few years ago, but he exceeded even my expectations of him in his first taste of the big leagues in 2020.
Akin made eight appearances last season (six starts), posting a 4.56 ERA but a 3.27 FIP, a 30% strikeout rate, and he led all Orioles pitchers with a 0.8 fWAR. As a starter, Akin produced a 14.7% swinging-strike rate, which ranked 12th among all starting pitchers in the majors with at least 20 IP. How? An excellent changeup (36% whiff rate) that produces swings and misses against righties and lefties. The Orioles forced him to use his changeup and slider in uncomfortable counts while in Triple-A in 2019 and the work seems to have paid off.
But his 92 mph four-seamer is also a solid option in his repertoire. The high-spin offering has a high-degree of movement on it (53% above average horizontal movement) and it plays very well down in the zone when Akin’s command is on.
The red flags with Akin continue to be his control and high percentage of fly balls/hard-contact that could turn into a large number of home runs allowed across a full season. Half of all batted balls off Akin last season were classified as “hard-hit” which ranked among the bottom 2% of MLB pitchers, per Baseball Savant. His 8.6% walk rate was the first time since his days in Aberdeen back in 2016 that he walked fewer than 10% of hitters. When he starts missing up and away armside, things tend to fall apart quickly. The first thing I’m looking for when spring training rolls around is Akin’s command of the strike zone. That could be one of the biggest indicators of how his 2021 season will go.
RHP Dean Kremer
Fellow rookie Dean Kremer was equally as impressive, enough so that Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs gave a slight Future Value bump to both Kremer and Akin in his post-season evaluations, believing both are rotation pieces at the major league level.
Kremer made just four starts, but showed good velocity on his fastball and showcased his beautiful curveball for those who hadn’t seen him pitch in the minor leagues. His final numbers are heavily skewed after giving up seven earned runs on seven hits in 2.2 innings against Boston in his final start, but what he did in his first three starts gave Orioles fans some hope that we will be seeing some return from the Manny Machado trade very soon.
Kremer gave up just two earned runs across 11 innings in his first two career starts, both of those coming against the New York Yankees, striking out 14 in the process. He followed that up with a five inning outing against Tampa Bay, allowing one run on three hits with six strikeouts. That’s no small feat for a rookie in the AL East.
It’s difficult to have any major takeaways after fewer than 20 innings, but I’d like to see Kremer throw more first-pitch strikes in 2021. Among all starting pitchers who threw 20 innings last season, Houston’s Cristian Javier ranked 165th out of 165 pitchers with a 43.3% first-pitch strike rate. Kremer posted a 42.2% rate in his 18 innings. He put up impressive numbers while falling behind the majority of hitters he faced after just one pitch. It’s fun to think about what he can do with his deep repertoire when he works ahead in the count.
Internal candidates for 5th spot
The Orioles have two primary options who can round out the rotation in LHP Bruce Zimmermann and RHP Jorge Lopez. Lopez was a waiver claim last season who went 2-2 with a 6.34 ERA in nine appearances (six starts), but posted a 5.28 FIP and 4.87 xFIP and was worth 0.3 Wins Above Replacement. The Orioles seem high on his ability to contribute, but I find that hard to believe.
Lopez put together decent numbers as he went through a lineup for the first time, limiting hitters to a .605 OPS, which isn’t great, but much better than his .966 OPS the second time through the order. Out of the bullpen, Lopez was even worse. Even when overlooking the very small sample size, there’s really nothing there that shows Lopez can hold down a rotation spot across a 162 game schedule.
The story is a little different when it comes to the Zimmermann. The local product struggled in his short time on the mound last season, but his adjustments on the mound have been well-documented at this point. Ideally, Zimmermann can win the fifth spot and be given an opportunity to pitch on a regular schedule to showcase his stuff and either sink or swim, but there’s a good chance that a Tommy Milone or Wade LeBlanc type signing occurs in the next few weeks, in which case Zimmermann may find himself as a long-man out of the ‘pen. He just innings and we need to see what he can do.
Possible signings before spring training
Trevor Bauer, Masahiro Tanaka, or even Jose Quintana aren’t walking through the gates of Camden Yards in an Orioles uniform this season, so if minor league signings aren’t your thing, I discuss high-level prospects below!
If the Orioles do bring in someone, there are a few names that standout as possibilities. Mike Foltynewicz saw a massive velo drop last season, immediately followed by his removal from the 40-man roster and a summer at Atlanta’s Alternate Site. Formerly a highly-regarded prospect, Folty added notable weight as the summer progressed and saw some of his velo return. He’s a risky pickup, but there’s no such thing as a bad minor league signing and at 29 years of age, there’s no harm in at least bringing him in to spring camp to see what he looks like after a full offseason.
A 13-year MLB veteran and two-time All-Star, LHP Gio Gonzalez is another name that’s been connected to the Orioles in a few different places. Gonzalez has been worth 1.1 fWAR or more every single season since 2009, except for a down 2020 campaign that saw him record a 4.83 ERA and -0.1 fWAR across 31.2 innings. If he will accept a deal for less than $2-3 million, the Orioles may be players there.
The more appropriate exercise may be to comb through the list of minor league free agents to find potential targets for the Orioles. If there is another Ashton Goudeau type arm out there, Baltimore will be sure to find them. But seriously, ignore Goudeau’s garbage time numbers from last season, there’s real intrigue there.
Prospects to watch in 2021
Going into the 2021 season with only one opening in the starting rotation is good news for many of the younger arms in the system. While Mike Elias has already stated that minor league assignments and whether or not players skip the level they were supposed to play at in 2020 will be made on a case-by-case basis, we know Elias has been (correctly) slower to move up prospects until they have mastered their current level. There won’t be any need to rush anyone up this year, allowing for this large group of promising young arms to slowly work their way back into shape to tackle a full season again.
We should still see a significant number of rookie debuts in 2021. Zac Lowther is the strikeout artist who could get a look later in the year. The biggest thing to watch as he likely begins the season in Norfolk is his strikeout and walk numbers. If he can continue to produce swings and misses while limiting his walks against more advanced hitters, the Orioles might have another rotation candidate on their hands.
Alex Wells and Lowther were both protected ahead of the Rule 5 draft, meaning the organization is high on both of them and after watching Wells rebound well in Double-A last season after many shaky outings in High-A, the Australian control-artist isn’t far from making his Camden Yards debut. I will admit, I’ve been more and more critical of Wells, but I’ll gladly eat my words if Wells can emerge as a viable rotation option.
Both Kevin Smith and Cody Sedlock could also see big league time this season. After numerous injuries and dropping off many top prospect lists, Sedlock, a former first-round pick, was one of the most improved prospects in the Orioles system in 2019. If you want to see why Kevin Smith is worth your attention, we at On The Verge highlighted him on Twitter last week.
Lastly, there’s Michael Baumann. Baumann had his 2020 experience at the team’s Alternate Site cut short due to an injury, but the powerful righty should be good to go for spring training. While Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall receive the majority of attention as the organization’s top pitching prospects, Baumann is a potential Top 100 prospect and a special talent in the system.
2020 Rule 5 picks Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells will be discussed in the bullpen breakdown. Both have worked as starters up to this point in their careers, but to remain on the active roster this season, they will need to find a home in the bullpen.
It’s ok to be excited about what we could see out of the Baltimore Orioles starting rotation this year. There will be growing pains, but at least glimpses of the future are quickly arriving.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University. Co-Host of The Verge.