The Orioles depended on minor league free-agent pitchers in 2021. Here’s why they shouldn’t repeat that in 2022. | ANALYSIS

The Baltimore Sun
The Baltimore Sun
Orioles starting pitcher Matt Harvey, right, walks by the pitcher's mound as Minnesota Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers, left, rounds the bases on his second-inning home run on June 2 at Camden Yards. Ulysses Muñoz

In describing Matt Harvey’s 2021 campaign with the Orioles as “a really good year for himself and for us” near the end of the season, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias largely pointed to one metric: innings.

Coming off the abbreviated 2020 season, Baltimore had to handle the massive innings leap from a 60-game schedule to the traditional 162-game slate. With a pitching staff that figured to feature several rookies and likewise inexperienced arms, the Orioles elected to fill their gaps with pitchers signed to minor league contracts and eventually added to the major league roster when a need for innings arose.

Pitchers who joined the organization on minor league deals were responsible for nearly a fourth of Baltimore’s non-position player innings pitched in 2021, almost double the percentage those players handled in 2020. This year’s count includes César Valdez and Mickey Jannis, right-handers in their 30s who signed minor league contracts before last season, and Wade LeBlanc, who, like Harvey and former Cy Young Award winner Félix Hernández, joined the Orioles on a minor league deal to compete for a rotation spot in spring training. LeBlanc was released from that contract but re-signed a major league deal to make Baltimore’s Opening Day roster, though he was designated for assignment before the end of April.

With Hernández suffering an elbow injury in camp and never making a regular-season appearance for the Orioles, Harvey was left as the bell cow of those signings. Although a knee injury caused him to miss most of the season’s final month, Harvey finished second among Orioles with 127 ⅔ innings after pitching about 70 over the previous two seasons combined.

Yet for what Harvey provided in quantity, he largely could not match with quality. He finished with a 6.27 ERA, though Baltimore’s defense was particularly poor behind him and advanced metrics suggest he dealt with some bad luck because of that. Still, that mark was high ranking among the members of the pitching staff who arrived on minor league contracts.

Those 11 pitchers — the Orioles had three in 2020 — combined for a 6.99 ERA across more than 330 innings in 2021. For six of them, the innings they provided Baltimore were their first in the majors. That the Orioles needed them spoke to the struggles, in terms of both health and performance, of the young pitchers they expected to rely on. The Orioles deployed six pitchers who entered the season among the top 20 prospects in the organization according to Baseball America, and all of them finished with ERAs above 5.00, while five had ERAs of at least 6.60.

Baltimore will hope for better results when its next wave of arms arrives, with the organization’s top three pitching prospects in Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall and Kyle Bradish all expected to make their respective debuts at some point in 2022. But until they reach Camden Yards, the Orioles could be better off supplementing their staff with pitchers far different from the journeymen types they rounded up last offseason.

Elias has noted the challenges of luring pitchers to Baltimore, with Camden Yards being a hitter’s haven and thus not an ideal landing spot for a veteran pitcher looking to build up his value on a short-term deal. The Orioles also don’t yet seem to be at the stage of their rebuild where they’ll start adding players on longer, more expensive contracts, with Elias already ruling out “making the largest splash at the winter meetings” this offseason.

Heading into what will be his fourth winter leading Baltimore’s baseball operations department, Elias has yet to sign a free agent to a guaranteed multi-year deal. LeBlanc received one of the four major league contracts Elias has given to free-agent pitchers, and his 6 ⅔ innings for the Orioles this year were the second-most Baltimore has gotten out of any of those pitchers.

Elias has pointed out the opportunity the organization can offer to available pitchers, with John Means holding the only secured rotation spot while also being a potential trade candidate. But the Orioles’ general manager has an opportunity to shore up Baltimore’s pitching in a manner that goes beyond desperation for innings.

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