Tyler Wells’ demotion would’ve been unfathomable three weeks ago. Sunday, it was barely a surprise.
Wells, the Orioles’ best starting pitcher in the season’s first half, was optioned to Double-A after his third straight poor start Saturday. Since the All-Star break, the 6-foot-8 right-hander has been almost unrecognizable to the reliable starting pitcher who was leading the majors in WHIP.
The increasing workload for Wells, who pitched just 163 total frames from 2019 to 2022, has been a question facing the club since he solidified his spot in the rotation and quickly approached his single-season innings high. The Orioles gave their answer Sunday, with manager Brandon Hyde explaining the demotion as a way to give Wells a “breather,” manage his workload and get him back to the consistent starter who was integral to Baltimore’s success in the first half.
There’s not much argument over the validity of the Orioles’ decision to option Wells, who suddenly lost his command during his past three starts to issue nine walks and 11 runs in just nine innings. But the same bill that came due for Wells could also for Dean Kremer and Grayson Rodriguez, two other young members of the rotation who have either surpassed their single-season innings marks or are about to.
How Baltimore handles those trains barreling down the tracks might determine whether it can maintain its standing as the American League’s best team — on pace to win 98 games — or contend for a World Series.
“When you have starters that are doing things that they’ve never done before, you’re obviously paying closer attention,” Hyde said.
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Friday before Wells’ start that the organization is monitoring the workloads of its starting pitchers and will be “mindful of indicators” that could provide a “reason to pull back.”
“There’s really not a ton of science, or any science, there,” Elias said about innings limits. “We try to use common sense. We try to use our expertise. I don’t know that a single member of our rotation right now wants to go leave the rotation in some way shape or form. There’s that, too. They’re having the season of their lives, they’re competing, the team’s in first, they’ve got their whole careers ahead of them.”
Kremer, who was pulled with no outs in the fifth in Sunday’s win over the New York Yankees, is 14 2/3 innings away from matching his single-season high set last year. The 27-year-old right-hander leads the team with 10 wins, but he’s allowed four or more runs in eight of his 22 starts and owns a 4.66 ERA.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, has already surpassed his high-water mark of 103 frames from 2021 with 103 2/3 — nearly two-thirds of which in the majors. The 23-year-old spent six weeks in Triple-A after struggling in his first 10 starts, but he’s been sharp since returning to the rotation to begin the second half.
For Kremer, Rodriguez and, to a lesser extent, Kyle Bradish (who is 40 innings away from his single-season high), Hyde said they’ll be evaluated on a “case-by-case” basis. He’s also said in the past that evaluating the stress level of innings and pitches can be just as important as the total number of innings.
“It’s challenging,” Hyde said about managing workloads. “I’m so proud of all these guys. Tyler, he’s in uncharted waters right now. He’s not had experience of pitching like a normal starter in a full season since the minor leagues years ago. And all these guys are going to go through things for the first time, honestly, and that’s part of development and it’s part why they’re going to be really good down the road, too.
“We’re trying to win right now, and we’re going to try to win down the road and these guys have [taken] huge steps in their career this year. So we’re going to monitor things and we’ll see what happens, but we need all of them to go where we want to go.”
The workload conundrum doesn’t just apply to the rotation; it’s perhaps just as perilous for the Orioles’ two best relievers. Closer Félix Bautista and setup man Yennier Cano are both on pace to throw more innings than they did last season as Hyde has often tasked the two right-handers to finish games. Bautista has pitched in 43.8% of the Orioles’ games this season, while Cano, who was called up in mid-April, has appeared in 50.5% of contests for which he was on the roster.
Bautista, in his first full season as a closer, is at 50 innings and on pace for roughly 77 — more than the 65 2/3 he totaled last year. Cano, a rookie, is on pace for 84 innings — more than the 58 1/3 he covered last year and barely short of the 86 2/3 he managed in Cuba nearly a decade ago.
Unlike Wells and the starting pitchers, every pitch and inning Bautista and Cano throw are stressful. But similar to the starters, they could all be asked to pitch well into October.
“Bautista’s never closed for a full season before. Look at Cano’s last year, he’s never pitched in anything close to these sort of situations he’s being put in before,” Hyde said. “So all these guys are going to be better in the upcoming years for going through this year we’ve had up to this point, and hopefully we continue to keep it going. I’m incredibly impressed with how everybody’s handled it so far.”
It’s possible Wells returns to the rotation in August or September, although Hyde didn’t rule out using him in a relief role down the stretch. But at least for the short term, his demotion opens a spot in the rotation. The Orioles seemingly have two options: Move left-hander Cole Irvin back into the rotation or trade for a starting pitcher.
Baltimore is operating as a buyer at the trade deadline for the first time during Elias’ tenure, and he said it’s likely any additions would be for pitchers rather than position players. But Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline is approaching, and a few of the top starting pitchers on the market were dealt over the weekend.
“There’s a couple really interesting teams right now that still haven’t declared what they’re doing,” Elias said about the ever-evolving trade market. “We’re talking to a lot of them and kind of have some eyes on some stuff. We’ll see what they end up doing. We may end up having waited and they don’t sell.”
What’s to come?
The trade deadline, a pivotal AL East series and a reunion.
The last opportunity for Elias to bolster this roster via traditional trades this season is Tuesday, which comes in the middle of a four-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays. While the top of the AL East has been occupied solely by Tampa Bay and Baltimore this season, the Blue Jays enter the series 5 1/2 games back of the Orioles. The last time the Orioles went to Rogers Centre, they swept the Blue Jays in Toronto for the first time since 2005.
When they return home, they’ll welcome Buck Showalter back to Camden Yards for the first time since the former Orioles skipper was fired after the 2018 season. Showalter, 67, is in his second season managing the New York Mets, who have disappointed this season with a 50-55 record.
What was good?
The weekend series against the Yankees was the most-attended three-game set at Camden Yards in seven years. The announced attendance for the three games was a combined 114,816, including a sellout crowd Saturday. The average attendance this weekend was 38,272. The last time that many fans flocked to Oriole Park for a three-game series was July 2016 against the Los Angeles Angels (120,567). While a considerable amount of fans this weekend were wearing Yankee pinstripes, the last time a three-game Yankees series drew more fans than this weekend was in September 2014.
“The crowds have been unbelievable this weekend,” Hyde said. “We really appreciate the energy in the ballpark and how much our fans have showed up this weekend to support us and drowned out the Yankees fans, so that’s been great to see the energy in the ballpark.”
In the first half, All-Star Austin Hays slashed .314/.355/.498 — good for an .853 OPS. In the second half, he’s performed half as well, hitting .155 with three doubles and no home runs.
His struggles continued this week as the 28-year-old went 3-for-21 with one double and two walks. Hays’ batting average and OPS have fallen to .287 and .777, respectively.
On the farm
Luis Vicioso, a 20-year-old catching prospect, was named the Most Valuable Player of the Dominican Summer League All-Star Game on Sunday.
Vicioso, the younger brother of Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo, hit a two-run single in the first to propel the AL to a 4-3 win over the NL. Vicioso, who Baltimore signed out of the Dominican Republic in January, is slashing .355/.412/.505 — good for a .917 OPS — in 31 DSL games this year.