Among the most significant questions facing the Orioles’ rotation as the 2023 season nears is how many innings they’ll get out of arguably their most talented pitchers. The team itself is without an answer less than a month until pitchers and catchers report to Sarasota, Florida, for spring training.
During a segment with 105.7 The Fan on Friday, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Baltimore won’t have defined innings limits for pitchers John Means, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Tyler Wells. All but Means, recovering from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, are candidates to be in the season-opening rotation.
“I think the limits are not going to be hard and fast, and we’re going to be smart about how we work these guys,” Elias said. “We’re gonna look at things on a case-by-case basis, and I think that’s gonna depend on where the team’s at, where the pitchers themselves are at.”
Baltimore’s opening day starter the previous two seasons, Means made only two starts in 2022 before undergoing the season-ending procedure in April. He isn’t expected to rejoin the Orioles’ rotation until midseason.
One of baseball’s top pitching prospects, Rodriguez didn’t make his major league debut in 2022 after a right lat muscle strain cost him three months. At the end of the season, Elias said there’s “a very high likelihood” Rodriguez makes the Orioles’ rotation out of spring training, a possibility that would net the team an extra draft pick if he wins American League Rookie of the Year. The 23-year-old right-hander threw only 75 2/3 innings after a career-high 103 in 2021.
Hall had a delayed start to 2022 after a stress fracture in his left elbow ended his 2021 campaign. He made his major league debut as a starter in August before returning to the minors to convert to a relief role, a way for the Orioles to use him while managing his workload. Baltimore’s No. 2 pitching prospect behind Rodriguez, Hall has never thrown more than 100 innings in a season.
Despite pitching with an innings constraint, Wells was arguably Baltimore’s most consistent starter in the first half, but he made only three starts in the season’s final two months as he dealt with oblique and shoulder injuries. Wells missed 2019 to Tommy John surgery and 2020 to the canceled minor league season amid the coronavirus pandemic, then spent 2021 as a reliever. Returning to the starting role he had in the minors, the 28-year-old finished the 2022 season with 103 2/3 innings pitched, nearly double his 2021 total.
Elias said the Orioles’ pitching and medical departments will work together throughout the season to make sure all of their pitchers have an appropriate workload. Means will be monitored carefully as he returns. Wells and Hall could both work as relievers. The Orioles have long been careful with their usage of Rodriguez; in 40 starts over the past two years, he’s never thrown more than 90 pitches, though the post-pandemic ramp-up and his lat injury were factors.
“We don’t want to get in a situation where we’re just shutting down one of our best pitchers in the middle of August because he ran out of innings,” Elias said. “There’s no real science behind that, either. There’s nothing that’s ever proven that throwing more innings leads to injury. This is just kind of baseball people trying to use common sense, and I think that we’re gonna bring our brains to workload management for our pitching staff this year, and hopefully, we get those guys out there pitching as much as possible.”
Many of the Orioles’ rotation candidates beyond this group come with workload questions, with veteran Kyle Gibson the exception after averaging 173 innings over the past eight full seasons before signing with Baltimore last month. Of the eight pitchers who made at least four starts for Baltimore last year, only innings leader Jordan Lyles isn’t returning, leaving Dean Kremer’s 125 1/3 innings as the most any pitcher in that group threw in the majors in 2022, and all seven of them — Kremer, Wells, Kyle Bradish, Spenser Watkins, Austin Voth, Bruce Zimmermann and Mike Baumann — set career highs for major league innings in 2022. Gibson, Rodriguez and Hall join them to form two rotations’ worth of candidates, though some figure to settle in Baltimore’s bullpen.
“One thing that I am feeling really good about with this pitching staff and this rotation group, in particular, is the depth and the numbers and kind of the upside and good variability I think we’re gonna have with this young group,” Elias said. “Whether it was the young guys that we saw kind of cut their teeth last year in the rotation, all of them are coming back, or guys that were in Triple-A and have really bright futures, I think there’s a lot of upside with this young group. But just the fact of the matter is [there’s] not a lot of innings or experience at the major league level with a lot of these guys.”
Elias said he’s still working to add another experienced starter, but the free agent market has largely thinned; of remaining free agents, only four threw more innings than Kremer last year, with only Zack Greinke and Michael Wacha doing so with an ERA below 4.89. The lack of options has perhaps shifted attention throughout the league to trade possibilities, Elias said.
Elias told reporters at November’s General Manager Meetings the team’s “priority” was a starter who could be in the “top three spots in the rotation.” Gibson could prove to qualify, though he was initially viewed as a back-end innings eater upon his signing. With Means sidelined, the Orioles lack a clear opening day starter, and it’s possible Gibson’s experience earns him a nod he also received for the Texas Rangers in 2021, with strong second halves from Kremer and Bradish also putting them in position for the honor.
Of course, Elias could still land a legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm in a trade.
“It is an area that I think would be a good way of upgrading our team right now, but those guys aren’t easy to get your hands on sometimes,” Elias said. “It was a very competitive winter. I can’t say I was really surprised by it. Pitching has always been something that’s hard to come by. We had some very close opportunities [in free agency] where it just went in a different direction. That happens, but we’re continuing to work on it.
“We’re definitely not going to rest in terms of improving this roster before we leave for Sarasota.”
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