SARASOTA, Fla. — So, like a batted ball finding the weakest link of the defense, what possible “big, breaking news” could the Orioles make March 6 since I wasn’t covering that night’s game against the New York Yankees in Tampa?
At about 2 p.m., I clicked on mlbtraderumors.com to find that indeed the Orioles did make what, for them, is “big breaking news.” They announced they were returning right-handers Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker — their Rule 5 picks — to the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, respectively.
The Rule 5 has been almost a rite of spring, summer and fall since Dan Duquette first plucked Ryan Flaherty at the Winter Meetings in December 2011. I won’t bore you with the paltry benefits the club obtained through the painstakingly complicated maneuvering to keep Rule 5 picks on the roster. I’m not even sure Baltimore baseball fans know teams can summarily return players without a deke here and sleight of hand over there.
The news here is a bit of a mixed bag. General manager Mike Elias made it clear that the moves were not made because they suddenly liked Bailey and Rucker less. But he did say the new three-batter minimum and the news that players optioned to the minors had to stay there 15 days (instead of 10) factored into this decision.
Elias also noted that since the Orioles came to Sarasota with a huge camp roster (close to 70 players), difficult decisions needed to be made to get down to 26 players by the March 26 opener against the Yankees at Camden Yards.
Rucker was always penciled in as more or less the 13th man on the pitching staff, with the hope being that he would be a solid arm out of the bullpen. But Bailey was penciled in — maybe with a true pencil — as a strong possibility to hold the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
So, just who will the club turn to in order fill both of those pesky openings in a rotation that currently features lefty John Means and right-handers Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski? This offseason, the club signed right-hander Kohl Stewart, a former No. 1 pick of the Minnesota Twins way back in 2013. Stewart has yet to pitch due to a bicep issue. Even though he is scheduled to get in a game March 8, it’s highly unlikely he can be ready by Opening Day.
Elias said in the weeks before arriving in Sarasota that he was looking at a couple of minor-league veterans and that he still had room in the budget for a possible major-league free-agent starter.
Instead, the club in rapid-fire fashion signed veteran left-handers Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone to minor-league deals. Their solid performances thus far probably sealed the deal for the aforementioned Rule 5 pickups, because LeBlanc and Milone must be added to the 40-man roster if the Orioles are to carry them on Opening Day.
But the two veterans also present something to manager Brandon Hyde that he didn’t feel he had last year — namely, the type of pitcher who could pitch bulk innings behind an “opener.”
Last year, whenever I’d bring up the idea of using an opener to either Hyde or Elias, I was shot down time and again. An opener, they said, requires a team to have pitchers who can do the heavy lifting of throwing three or four innings after the opener pitches one or two innings.
While LeBlanc’s 2019 numbers were nowhere near his terrific 2018, he still threw 121.1 innings — and that’s with just eight starts. He routinely bailed out his skipper, Scott Servais, with length out of the bullpen. The lack of relievers who could throw bulk innings killed an Orioles staff that had a 5.59 ERA last year.
Milone only made six starts in 2019, but again, he was able to log 111.2 innings. He too saved Servais’ bacon by giving him length out of the ‘pen.
I am not flat-out predicting LeBlanc and Milone will be designated as bulk guys behind openers. Though both could get opportunities to start, clearly they may also evolve into guys whose true worth to the 2020 Orioles will be bending from time to time but not fully breaking.
While not sexy or obvious, the 2019 Orioles may have played more close games if they had these kinds of guys. Remember, the Orioles lost 40 games by five runs or more.
No, the 2020 Orioles are not suddenly going to contend. But on the way back to relevance, progress can be measured by certain numbers moving in the right direction.