Sarasota, Florida – It’s a good problem.
You hear it in spring training almost as many times as you hear, “Best form of my life.”
The Orioles think they have a “good problem” now. They have six starters that they think could clear themselves well in the rotation this season.
The problem is that they probably need to get to the fifth by Opening Day on Thursday, because they don’t see a six-man role working when it’s limited to 13 pitchers — or eight announcers — this season. The six-man rotation has the potential to add stress to the base game if seven relievers have to capture a large number of innings in a given week, especially early in the season.
Kyle Gibson has already been named the starter and Dean Cramer will start in Game 2 in Boston. The rest of the matter has yet to be announced, but Cole Irvin got a safe spot.
That leaves two jobs to fill, and realistically, she’s among three candidates: Tyler Wells, Kyle Braddish, and Grayson Rodriguez.
Austin Fauth is still technically an option, but he is expected to go into the bullpen to start the year. Two other potential candidates have been selected for Sunday afternoon’s minor league camp: lefty DL Hall and Spencer Watkins, as well as exempt Yennier Canó.
Hall, who was suspended early in the spring due to lower back discomfort, made his debut at the Grapefruit League game Monday. He threw four innings in two innings, and instead of falling out of the fold in the regular season like he did last September, the 24-year-old former first-round pick will return to Triple A to start every fifth day.
“He was a little short of spring training, but he threw the ball great,” said Orioles coach Brandon Hyde. “Really happy with the progress he’s made. I love the way he threw the ball throughout spring training when he was there. Just want to give him some extra innings and build him up a little more.”
Placing Hall in the bullpen was an option, but the Orioles elected to groom him to start in Norfolk instead. It’s the right move considering Hall has all the ingredients to be a starter; He just needs to hone his driving. To abandon this possibility now would be shortsighted.
“It’s hard just to build men on the battlefield, frankly, just because you never know what’s going to happen at night,” Hyde said. “We felt the best thing for him at the moment was to keep him a regular starter and prolong his life at Norfolk.”
Watkins always seemed like a long shot to make the turnover, simply because of who was ahead of him in the Orioles’ picking order. Hyde said he expects Watkins to remain available at Triple A if the Orioles need him, which they likely will do at some point given the natural attrition of the big league season.
The moves on Sunday — along with the expectation that veteran reliever Mychal Givens will be held back to start the season due to left knee discomfort that flared up again on Sunday during Givens’ sim game — spoil the bullpen formation.
Felix Bautista, Sionel Perez, Brian Baker, Voth and Keegan Akin all seem to be heading north with the club.
This gives the Orioles three more slots that will likely go to a combination of base 5 draft pick Andrew Poletti, veteran Joey Krebiel, Mike Bowman and Logan Gillaspie.
The wild card here is if Wales lose their rotation bid and head into the bullpen. Then another one from the aforementioned quartet returns to the palace.
It’s a realistic scenario given Wells’ success in 2021.
But the problem here is that at this point in their careers, Wells, 28, is more of a polished pitcher from Pradesh or debutant phenom Rodriguez. Wells also has more MLB experience – 67 games pitched, 160 2/3 innings for 23 starts, 117 2/3 innings for the 26-year-old Bradysh and no big league innings for Rodriguez.
Despite getting a number of uneven pitches, Wells only walked two runs and struck out 16 batters this spring, which shows what he can do when he hits the zone.
Of the three, Rodriguez may have been the least impressive in the spring. He hasn’t gone through four innings in any appearance and has allowed 11 earned runs in his last 10 innings, 2/3.
But he is arguably the most talented player in baseball. He has the tools to be a regular on the front lines and is someone fans have been asking to watch for a few seasons now. We all know he has the talent and the mentality to be a really good pitcher this year.
But is it a better option than Pradesh and Wales now?
Well, here’s what Orioles general manager Mike Elias has to figure out for the next couple of days, maybe by the end of Monday.
There are some other considerations here with Rodriguez. First, if he is not on the roster to start the season and subsequently finish in the top two of AL Rookie of the Year voting, the Orioles will not get an additional draft pick, which is now available to teams under the new collective bargaining agreement.
That would hurt, as it did with Adley Rutschman last year, when he was unable to start the season due to injury yet finished second in ROY voting and received a full year of service time for 2022. But, due to his late start, the Orioles did not qualify for a draft pick. Additional draft.
The flip side is that Rodriguez has only thrown 75 2/3 innings in the past year, mostly in Triple A, due to a Latin strain. The Orioles will watch innings in the majors, regardless of when they start in the seniors. They could also get an extra year of service time on Rodriguez if they keep him down for a few weeks in April, but that has to be balanced against the possibility of choosing to draft now.
Braddish did his part on Sunday, allowing one hit, one walk and one run in five innings against a depleted Philadelphia Phillies lineup in a 4-2 Orioles win at Ed Smith Stadium. It was a complete turnaround from his previous start in which he allowed nine runs in two innings against the Phillies last Monday. This was Pradesh’s only real shortcoming this spring.
“I don’t think one bad outing was really enough to tie me down, but it’s not up to me,” Pradesh said. “So, I hope I did well this spring.”
Pradesh did. So did Wells. So does Rodriguez, who has so many dreamy talents that his roster inclusion couldn’t be so easily turned down.
One thing the Orioles could do is put Wells in the bullpen and have him start Rodriguez on the running back, maybe three innings from Rodriguez and then four from Wells for the first month or so. But this could still put a strain on the eight-man bulls and possibly knock Wells out of the rookie routine and rhythm.
“I think the potential rotation we have is really good,” Pradesh said. “I think it’s a good problem for the front office to have to make those tough decisions, but whatever happens, happens. I can’t really control that.”
It is the decision of Elias, Hyde and their comrades. Perhaps the most reasonable thing would be to send Rodriguez back to Triple A to monitor his innings. But this would be the most unpopular decision out there.
Elias never worried about popular choice. It was always about what he considered the right calling for the institution.
I’m not 100 percent sure what’s going on in this case. It’s Elias’ problem – good or bad – to deal with.
He’s made a lot of right calls during his tenure in Baltimore, but this might be one of his toughest.
(Photo: Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire/The Associated Press)