Former Cy Young winner Hernandez released while Orioles name Kremer, Lopez to rotation

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The Felix Hernandez era in Baltimore is apparently over before it ever started.

The Orioles announced the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner and six-time All-Star pitcher requested and was granted his release from his minor-league contract on Monday. The 34-year-old right-hander hadn’t pitched in a Grapefruit League game since March 16 due to right elbow soreness, sinking his chances of making the Opening Day starting rotation. Hernandez didn’t pitch last season after opting out because of the COVID-19 pandemic and posted a 6.40 ERA in his final season with Seattle in 2019, continuing a multiyear decline for a once-special pitcher.

In three spring starts, Hernandez had allowed five earned runs and six hits over 5 2/3 innings, but his fastball velocity sat in the mid-80s, a far cry from his peak with the Mariners in which he won two ERA titles.

With Hernandez officially out of the Opening Day roster discussion and John Means, Matt Harvey, and Bruce Zimmermann already confirmed for the top three spots in the starting rotation, manager Brandon Hyde announced right-handers Jorge Lopez and Dean Kremer would fill out the last two slots to open the 2021 season. Lopez, 28, is out of minor-league options and posted a 6.34 ERA in 38 1/3 innings for Baltimore last season, but he has pitched to a 2.75 ERA and struck out 17 batters in 19 2/3 innings in Grapefruit League action, drawing praise from Hyde for being “aggressive in the strike zone.” Lopez owns a career 6.03 ERA in 228 1/3 major league innings with the Orioles, Kansas City, and Milwaukee.

Kremer entered the spring as a favorite to be part of the rotation, but the recent demotion of fellow rookie Keegan Akin had led some to wonder if the former would also be optioned to Triple-A Norfolk to open the season after his spring struggles. The 25-year-old posted an underwhelming 6.32 ERA in 15 2/3 Grapefruit League innings, but he was much sharper in his final outing, allowing two earned runs and striking out five in 4 2/3 innings. One of the central figures of the Manny Machado trade three years ago, Kremer made his major league debut last September, posting a 4.82 ERA and striking out 22 in 18 2/3 innings.

The former Los Angeles Dodgers draft pick enters 2021 as the Orioles’ No. 8 overall prospect, according to MLB.com.

“Dean threw the ball well last year for us in his handful of starts,” Hyde said Monday. “He didn’t get off to a really good start this spring, but his last start against Boston showed that he’s earned it. I really like his stuff as well. It was fun to tell both those guys that they were going to be in the rotation.”

Means, Harvey, and Zimmermann will start the first three games of the season against the Red Sox at Fenway Park while Lopez and Kremer will start the first two games of the Yankees series in the Bronx, but Hyde said there’s wasn’t much to read into the order other than Kremer being in the final spot to limit his workload as the youngest arm in the rotation.

In other pitching news, Rule 5 picks Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler have both been informed that they’ve made the Opening Day roster. The 26-year-old Wells allowed one run and struck out 12 in nine spring innings while Sceroler, 25, allowed five earned runs, struck out three, and walked six over seven full frames, but all of those runs came in a March 5 appearance against Toronto.

Neither Wells nor Sceroler — the latter being the nephew of former Orioles pitcher and current MASN color analyst Ben McDonald — has pitched above the Double-A level, but general manager Mike Elias will try to keep them on the 26-man roster as part of a nine-man bullpen. Unlike former Orioles executive Dan Duquette, however, Elias doesn’t have a track record of keeping Rule 5 picks to the detriment of his pitching staff after returning former Rule 5 pitchers Brandon Bailey and Michael Rucker to their original clubs last March, meaning their long-term stay is far from a given.

Outfielder Anthony Santander missed the final six spring games with what’s described as a sore oblique, but Hyde said he would be taking at-bats in a “controlled environment” in Sarasota over the next couple days. The Orioles manager was again asked whether Santander would be available for Thursday’s opener against the Red Sox.

“If everything goes well, which we’re expecting to, yes,” Hyde said.