The Orioles’ series with the Los Angeles Angels began with the team threatening its own American League record of 21 consecutive losses and increasing scrutiny from the national media that the Orioles aren’t doing all they can to win while rebuilding from the ground up.
The Orioles stopped the losing streak at 19, which tied for the fourth longest in baseball history. On Thursday, they won for the second straight time and watched Keegan Akin, one of their biggest disappointments this year, pitch the best game of his career.
The two wins give them 40. Although they’re heading for their third 100-loss season in the past four years — with the 60-game 2020 season not counting — Akin’s win was symbolically important.
It was not only the best performance from Akin, but the best from any starter besides John Means. Akin completed seven innings, recording four more outs than he’s ever done before.
His record is still 1-8 with a 7.26 ERA. But his performance could have been the first toward fulfilling the potential he showed in a small sample size last year.
Akin remained in the rotation because the Orioles don’t have many choices. Spenser Watkins, who allowed eight runs in two-plus innings on Tuesday night in the 19th straight loss, has lost six in a row with a 7.07 ERA and is scheduled to start on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
The Orioles have much more invested in Akin than in Watkins. Akin was a second-round draft choice in 2016. Watkins signed a minor league contract in February.
For the Orioles’ record to improve in 2022, they’ll need better performances from those who have underperformed — Akin, Dean Kremer and Zac Lowther.
They have a lot invested in Kremer and Lowther, too. Kremer was 0-7 with a 7.25 ERA in 12 starts with the Orioles, and he’s 0-5 with a 6.29 ERA in 12 games, four of them recent relief appearances, for Triple-A Norfolk.
Kremer, outfielder Yusniel Diaz and infielder Rylan Bannon are the players remaining from the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2018.
Kremer was 1-1 with a 4.82 ERA in four starts late last season with the Orioles. He and Akin pitched well enough to convince the Orioles to go forward with them for 2021.
On Thursday night, Lowther, who has been slowed by left shoulder soreness, made a rehab start for Double-A Bowie. He gave up two unearned runs on five hits in four innings, striking out four and walking one.
Lowther had a 10.80 ERA in five games with the Orioles. As a second-round pick in the 2017 draft, the team has much invested in him as well.
The Orioles need to find out if Akin, Kremer and Lowther can be part of their long-term plan, or at least pieces to help them get to their long-term plan.
Those three and Cody Sedlock, the team’s top draft pick in 2016 who only recently was promoted to Norfolk, are pitchers who haven’t fulfilled their promise. Because they haven’t delivered and because there hasn’t been anyone pushing them for major league jobs, they continue to receive opportunities.
It doesn’t matter that executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias didn’t choose them. He has elected to keep all of them because he has seen enough potential to believe they could be part of the solution.
Elias also inherited two top-shelf pitching prospects. DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez were the Orioles’ top picks in 2017 and 2018. For a short time, both were on Bowie’s staff until Hall’s elbow bothered him. He has been shut down for the season.
Last week, Elias indicated that it’s possible that Rodriguez, who sped through High-A Aberdeen with a 3-0 record and a 1.54 ERA and is 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA with the Baysox, could get bumped up to Norfolk for the season’s final weeks.
Because of Hall’s injury, Rodriguez has jumped past him and could reach the Orioles first. So should top prospect catcher Adley Rutschman, who’s batting .358 in his first 13 games with the Tides. Rodriguez and Rutschman should be with the Orioles next season.
“I don’t know if any one or two players is going to dramatically improve our record,” Elias said last Friday. “I mean, look, these guys are two of the very best prospects in the game. They both had immense success in Double-A.
“Adley’s getting a taste of Triple-A. I think that’s coming for Grayson at some point. We’re having discussions on when it makes sense to do that in his case. But when you’re a top 10 prospect in the league and you’re an elite performer at Double-A, things start to get pretty real at that point. So fingers crossed with health for everyone, including those two … they’re certainly on the radar screen for 2022 in a big way.”
Diaz’s 2021 has been one with multiple injuries and a .172 average in 32 games at Norfolk.
Chris Ellis’ start on Wednesday night made him the 55th player used by the team this year, just three away from the team record. Ellis is one of a number of new pitchers along with Watkins, Conner Greene, Marcos Diplán and Fernando Abad. They’re getting a chance because prospects such as Akin, Kremer and Lowther haven’t produced.
While Diaz has been hurt and has floundered at the plate, opportunities have gone to DJ Stewart, the top draft pick in 2015, and Ryan McKenna. Stewart’s difficulties in the outfield are evident, but the Orioles also have a lot invested in him, and Diaz hasn’t been there to push him.
The Orioles have used 33 pitchers this season. Elias has been criticized for the quality of the free-agent pitchers he has signed. Matt Harvey has maintained a presence in the starting rotation, but two other veterans he signed, Félix Hernández and Wade LeBlanc, are long gone.
It would have helped had the team been able to sign a higher-caliber starter in the offseason, but the Orioles are the lowest choice for any free-agent pitcher. Not only is the team not competitive but pitching nearly half your games in the American League East and in cozy Oriole Park isn’t an attractive option.
Because their young pitchers have underperformed — one who was performing, Bruce Zimmermann, has miss extended time because of left biceps tendinitis and a sprained ankle — they’ve appeared overmatched many times this season.
Next spring training should feature Akin, Hall, Lowther, Kremer, Means, Rodriguez, Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Alexander Wells and perhaps Sedlock, Kyle Bradish and Kevin Smith, two starters at Norfolk expected to be added to the 40-man roster.
It will be interesting to see if Elias deviates from his past strategy and attempts to trade for or sign better starters. Even if he does, the Orioles still are going to need some of their prospects to live up to their promise.