This is going to be an important Spring Training for the future of the Orioles' rotation.
One thing is crystal clear: The team will be bad in 2020. Baltimore is openly tanking for a top pick in next year's draft and that won't change regardless of who's taking the mound every day.
That being said, the rebuild is in full swing and some prospects are going to be cracking the major leagues this season. It's not a question of if, but of when.
For some, they'll have the chance to do so on Opening Day, as general manager Mike Elias has told reporters he envisions eight pitchers competing for rotation spots this spring.
But after selecting a couple pitchers in the Rule 5 draft and adding a few prospects to the 40-man roster, the number of starters with hopes of pitching for the Orioles this season is much larger than eight.
Here's who stands a chance at breaking camp with the team for the start of the season.
The locks: Alex Cobb, John Means
So far, Alex Cobb hasn't lived up to the four-year, $57 million deal he signed with Baltimore in 2018. He struggled in his first season with the club before being limited to just three starts in 2019 due to groin and lumbar strains that preceded hip surgery. Now healthy, Cobb will look to justify his $14 million salary with a bounce-back season.
Means was the Orioles' breakout player last season, posting a 3.60 ERA over 31 appearances (27 starts) en route to making an All-Star appearance and finishing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He'll now be given the opportunity to prove his rise was no fluke as he enters his age-27 season.
The favorite: Asher Wojciechowski
Elias told the Baltimore Sun that Asher Wojciechowski "earned the right of first refusal with how he pitched" last season.
The 31-year-old journeyman made a career-high 16 starts in 2019 after being acquired from the Cleveland Indians for cash considerations in July. He had a particularly rough month of August (6.75 ERA) but tossed four quality starts and could be used as a placeholder in the rotation until one of the Orioles' pitching prospects is ready.
In the mix: David Hess, Kohl Stewart, Keegan Akin, Brandon Bailey, Michael Rucker
If the Orioles already have a top eight candidates in mind, then these five names probably round out the group.
David Hess joins Means and Wojciechowski as the only three pitchers to make at least four starts for the Orioles last season who are still on the 40-man roster. He wasn't particularly effective in 2019 but is 26 and looking to prove he belongs at the major-league level.
Baltimore signed Kohl Stewart in December to a "split contract" with a minor-league option, so the team has the ability to retain him even if he doesn't make the roster out of Spring Training. Stewart is a former No. 4 overall pick who never put it all together with the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles are hoping they can figure out how to unlock his potential.
Perhaps the biggest name of the group is Keegan Akin, who is the Orioles' 11th-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline and was added to the 40-man roster this offseason. Elias has confirmed that Akin will have a shot at a roster spot this season and would be the first of the Orioles' farmhands to crack the starting rotation.
Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker were both added through the Rule 5 Draft, meaning they must stay on the Orioles' active roster all season or be forfeited back to their previous teams. Bailey posted a strong season at the Houston Astros' Double-A affiliate as a starter and is the more likely candidate to make the rotation. Rucker pitched as a reliever in 2019 for the Chicago Cubs' minor-league system but is a former starter who could be stretched back out.
The non-roster candidates: Ty Blach, Tom Eshelman, Chandler Shepherd, Luis Ortiz
The likelihood that any of these names make a strong enough impression to earn a rotation spot is slim, but their chances might improve is some of the previously mentioned players wind up hurt or underperforming. Cobb's injury issues could resurface, while Hess and Wojciechowski would be easy candidates to cut if they come out flat this spring.
All four pitchers appeared for the Orioles last season, but many things will have to go their way for them to make the Opening Day roster in 2020.
The prospects: Dean Kremer, Bruce Zimmermann
Both Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann are seen as future rotation pieces who could make the majors as early as this season, but they'll likely start the year at Triple-A before earning a promotion to the active roster.
Kremer is on the 40-man, so he certainly has an outside shot if he has a strong enough camp. But he would have to get off to a hot start in Spring Training, as neither of them will likely get many chances to start before being sent to minor-league camp.
Ryan Wormeli contributed to this report.
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Orioles will give 8 pitchers chance to compete for starting rotation originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington