In late January, MLB proposed to the MLB Players Association a 154-game season that featured expanded playoffs, the universal DH and full 162-game salaries for players. Oh, and it would have delayed the start of spring training and Opening Day by about 30 days. The MLBPA rejected the proposal without presenting a counteroffer, thus making it clear it wants the full boat of 162 games to be played by all 30 teams in 2021.
But the discussion about whether a 30-day delay of spring training would have made things safer regarding COVID-19 needs to also address the 8,000-pound elephant in the room that comes with a 162-game season following a 60-game season. Namely, how the hell are 30 teams going to cover all those additional innings during a 162-game season?
The total number of innings thrown during the pandemic-shortened season for the entire league was 15,468.2. In 2019, the total number of innings was 43,423.1 — nearly 28,000 more innings than 2020.
Last year, the Orioles threw 518.2 innings in 60 games. The club’s leader in innings pitched last season was Alex Cobb, traded to the Los Angeles Angels in early February. Cobb threw 52.1 innings in 10 starts. He was followed by John Means (43.2) and Jorge Lopez (38.1).
All told, a group of six pitchers started 45 of the Orioles’ 60 games. Asher Wojciechowski threw 37.0 innings in 10 appearances (seven starts), while Tommy Milone tossed 29.1 innings in his six appearances (all starts) and Keegan Akin racked up 25.2 innings in eight appearances (six starts). The other 15 starts were made by Thomas Eshelman (four), Dean Kremer (four), Wade LeBlanc (six) and Bruce Zimmermann (one).
So, just how will Orioles pitching coach Chris Holt’s arms pitch an additional 900 or so innings?
Let’s project the rotation — but let’s also quickly project the number of starters that will make up the rotation. For years now, many baseball purists have debated how starting pitching has been adversely affected by the demise of four-man rotations. Well, the five-man rotations of the last 40 years may more or less disappear in 2021. Teams may very well have to go to six-man rotations plus any and all prospects for spot starts to cover the increased workload.
As to who may make up the Orioles’ rotation, let’s factor in Means, Akin, Kremer, LeBlanc, Lopez, Felix Hernandez and the possibility that the Orioles add more veteran arms ahead of Opening Day. Let’s assume the Orioles will have at least seven candidates for what I think will be six starting spots at the start of the season.
But in addressing this issue of how these innings will be eaten up in Baltimore, it figures that we’ll see at least three prospects — Michael Baumann, Zac Lowther and Zimmermann — make more than a handful of starts.
Hopefully, Means will truly step up and take the mantle of consistently being a top starter and give the club at least 145-155 innings. If Hernandez can pitch well enough this spring to make the club, he could give the team 130-140 innings. If Akin and Kremer can cut the mustard, each would figure to be capable of 120-130 innings each.
Still, while the Orioles figure to make strides in their rebuild this summer, one of their real challenges will be figuring out how to develop an array of promising arms while covering a large uptick in innings.
That’s where the Hernandez signing comes in. If you think the signing of Hernandez is sheer lunacy, you are entitled to your opinion, but you just might be wrong. Go back in time to the 1993 season, when an apparently washed-up Fernando Valenzuela broke camp to pitch for Johnny Oates’ team after not having pitched in the majors since 1991. He had, however, pitched in Mexico in 1992.
Valenzuela made his first non-Dodgers major-league appearance with a scoreless inning for the Orioles in Seattle in April. He then made two starts that month, and the results were not promising. After those first three appearances, Valenzuela had allowed nine earned runs, 11 hits, three walks and two home runs in 7.1 innings. With an ERA of 11.05 and a batting average against of .344, people thought the Orioles were about as crazy for signing Valenzuela as today’s fans might think they are for taking a shot with King Felix.
Well, Valenzuela had a little something left. During his next 16 starts from May 1 to July 23, Valenzuela threw 111.1 innings to the tune of a 2.83 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. In those 111.1 innings, he allowed just 84 hits and seven home runs, and opponents batted just .216 against him.
Valenzuela faded badly in September and was only an Oriole that one season. Hernandez is a lottery ticket, but if the one-time power pitcher can finally adjust to not possessing the same stuff he had during his prime in Seattle, it could just be a ticket the O’s can cash in on at the trade deadline.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles