When pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in Sarasota, FL on Feb. 11th, excitement was in the air around one of the Grapefruit League’s finest facilities in the Ed Smith Stadium Complex. Yet despite the unbridled enthusiasm that usually surrounds the start of a new baseball season, some people think the Orioles have nothing at all to be excited about. And by some people, I mean David Schoenfield, who in a recent article for ESPN put the level of excitement around the team at zero.
For people in Baltimore, and Sarasota for that matter, that is simply not the case. Last week, in part one of this series based off readers’ Twitter responses, I profiled Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle, two young rookies who could be dark-horse Rookie of the Year candidates if their 2019 seasons are any indication.
This week, I focus on the young pitching that has either already has reached the Orioles, or could do so in 2020.
Harvey, a former first round pick whose father, Bryan, was a two-time All-Star closer, was supposed to be an ace in the making when he was drafted out of high school in 2013. Injuries altered those plans, however, and Harvey had changed roles from starter to reliever by mid-June in 2019.
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Harvey made 11 starts for Bowie last season and was ineffective, posting a 6.12 ERA and allowing 14 HR in just 50 innings. On June 14th, Harvey made his debut as a reliever and never looked back, striking out 11 batters while allowing just one hit in three games covering nine innings before earning a promotion to Norfolk, where he proceeded to register scoreless outings in nine of 11 appearances.
Though his ERA at Norfolk was 4.32, a blowup outing on July 13th where he allowed five runs in 1.1 IP really inflated those numbers. His ERA in the other 10 appearances was just 1.76, and that success continued once promoted to the Orioles on August 17th. Harvey pitched to a 1.42 ERA in seven games with the big-league club and featured a fastball that touched 100 MPH.
2019 was all about staying healthy and finding success for Harvey, and a switch to the bullpen helped him achieve the latter. His health, which has been a problematic almost since he was drafted, is another question, and while Harvey did pitch into September, he was shut down at season’s end as a precaution when he experienced lingering soreness after his last two outings. The soreness was nothing serious and sources reported that it was due to a career high in appearances and his most innings since 2014.
Heading into the 2020 season, Harvey is expected to be a mainstay in the Orioles bullpen and has the inside track to the closer’s role.
Akin, a second round pick out of Western Michigan University in the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft, entered 2019 sporting a 3.34 ERA in his professional career over 280 innings. Having spent 2018 with the Bowie Baysox, Akin moved up to Norfolk with the hopes of pitching well enough to make the jump to the majors at some point in the season.
While his numbers don’t jump off the page, Akin did pitch to the sixth best ERA in the International League (4.73) while leading the league in strikeouts and setting a career-best 10.5 K/9 mark. It was an explosive season for Triple-A offenses as only seven full-season starters posted an ERA below 5.00.
The problem for Akin was that he also set a career-high mark with 4.9 BB/9, though it has been reported that he was focusing more on honing in on his secondary pitches to go along with a heavy fastball that gets a lot of ground balls.
Akin was seriously considered for a September call-up, but the Orioles decided against it and let the former Organizational Minor League Pitcher of the Year (2018) begin his offseason a little earlier.
Entering 2020, Akin has a shot at making the Orioles rotation out of spring training, though how great the chances are remain to be seen. The Orioles have several pitchers—by my count at least nine—vying for three open slots in the starting rotation.
For Akin, this spring represents a huge step in his career. Having already spent a full season at the Orioles’ highest affiliate, a strong spring could go a long way towards the soon-to-be 25-year-old’s MLB debut. Baltimore is the land of opportunity for starting pitchers, and a spot is ripe for the taking. It’s up to Akin to seize it.
Kremer is another candidate for the starting rotation. In fact, I did a write-up on the young hurler earlier in spring training regarding his status as a piece of the Manny Machado trade that you can find here.
Kremer’s stock has been on the rise since joining the Orioles organization. The 2018 MiLB strikeout king has pitched to a 2.84 ERA in 130 IP for the Bowie Baysox the last two seasons, a number that got him promoted to Norfolk for four starts at the end of 2019, and while Kremer struggled a bit after his promotion, he did put up solid numbers in the Arizona Fall League and is primed to take a big step or two in 2020.
The 24-year-old righty features a five-pitch arsenal and has touched 96 mph with his fastball after sitting in the low-90s with the pitch early in his career. Though he has an outside chance to make the Opening Day roster, Kremer is likely to begin his season with the Tides, but could be a call-up later this summer should he pitch the way he did in Bowie.
Means was the biggest highlight of the 2019 Baltimore Orioles. Not even ranked among the top 30 prospects in the organization heading into the season, Means was the last addition to the Opening Day roster last spring, a move that more than worked out for both the team and the pitcher.
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All John Means did in 2019 was finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting while being the lone Orioles representative in the All-Star game. He led all AL rookies with 12 wins and his 3.60 ERA would have ranked seventh in the AL had he thrown enough innings to qualify (he was seven innings short). He also finished ninth in the AL in WAR for a starting pitcher.
A devastating change-up plus a few ticks added to his fastball propelled Means from a fringe-starter to the ace of the Baltimore staff seemingly overnight. In fact, Means’ 3.60 ERA was the lowest of any full season in his major or minor league career. The question is, can he sustain it?
There is tape on Means now, and we’ve seen a number of pitchers get figured out in this league. We’ve also seen pitchers come out of seemingly nowhere to become dominant in the majors. Dallas Keuchel is one of those pitchers, and a solid blueprint for Means to follow.
Keuchel was never dominant or over-powering in the minors, was never a highly touted prospect, and his MLB career got off to a slow start as he posted ERAs above 5.00 in each of his first two seasons in 2012 and 2013. In the six seasons since, Keuchel has pitched to a sub-4.00 ERA five times, and a sub-3.00 three times while winning at least 12 games four times, including an MLB-best 20 en route to the AL Cy Young award in 2015.
A comparison like that is sure to get fans excited about John Means’ potential, but it’s up to him to avoid a sophomore slump in 2020. If he can, the Orioles could have a staff anchor, if not ace, under team control for years to come.
In the next installment of my “Things to Be Excited for as an Orioles Fan” series, we’ll look at the young outfield the Orioles could boast throughout the 2020 season, including Anthony Santander’s breakout campaign and the potential debut of Yusniel Diaz.