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Pivot to six-man rotation now imminent for Orioles

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The Orioles had two off-days this week, which will equal their scheduled total for the next month and a half.  

On Friday, Baltimore entered a 45-day stretch that begins with 13 straight days of games before a May 30 off-day, continues with 17 consecutive game days until another break on June 17, and concludes with 13 straight days of games that will take the club to the start of July. In addition to that exhausting reality, the return of right-hander Grayson Rodriguez from the injured list is affording the Orioles an opportunity to try to keep their starting pitchers fresh, effective, and healthy into the summer. 

Cole Irvin was available in the bullpen for Friday’s 9-2 win over Seattle and was expected to remain in that capacity for at least Saturday’s contest, but that’s only temporary considering how well the lefty has pitched over his last five starts

“We expect to go to a six-man [rotation] probably here pretty soon with that long stretch coming up,” manager Brandon Hyde said prior to Friday’s game. “We feel great about adding a really good starter (Irvin) right now into our bullpen. It’s kind of a unique deal. But with Grayson coming off the IL, it’s just kind of where we are roster-wise.”

Hyde had left open the possibility of a six-man rotation when it became apparent that some shoulder inflammation wasn’t going to sideline Rodriguez for an extended period of time. The Orioles deployed a six-man rotation last August after acquiring starter Jack Flaherty at the trade deadline, and they’re trying to be mindful that two of their starters — John Means and Kyle Bradish — recently returned from elbow problems and Rodriguez has already been sidelined with an arm ailment. It’s a long season, and pitchers generally benefit from extra rest that more consistently scheduled off-days afford a rotation. 

Forty-three games in 45 days won’t be easy.

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Of course, there’s a cost to going this route with teams not being permitted to carry more than 13 pitchers on the 26-man roster. A six-man rotation leaves only a seven-man bullpen, meaning the organization will likely need to fire up the Norfolk shuttle more often and the coaching staff may need to get creative with the timing of certain starters’ side sessions to keep an extra arm available to lend an in-game hand if absolutely necessary. Irvin being available in the bullpen this weekend may serve as an example for such a template.

If nothing else, the Orioles appear committed to keeping Corbin Burnes on more regular rest, which makes sense when you’re talking about a legitimate No. 1 starter. 

“We kind of mapped out Burnes, and then we kind of fill in a little bit with the other guys on how we see fit,” Hyde said. “We’re not in that stretch yet, but it’s coming soon. We’re trying to keep them all healthy as possible. Then, when we have that stretch, we could probably go into a six-man rotation, which does limit a bullpen arm [and] does put more stress on the pen.” 

Everything’s fluid when you’re talking about the health and effectiveness of starting pitchers and relief arms alike. Plans change quickly.

The six-man rotation approach also reinforces how differently teams are handling starting pitching in today’s game. Longtime fans tend to bemoan Orioles starters averaging only 5.6 innings per outing this season until realizing Baltimore ranks a respectable eighth in the American League in starter innings despite entering Saturday having played the fewest games in the league. For better or worse, this is what teams are doing across baseball as they ask less of starters and lean more heavily on bullpen arms. Even the Philadelphia Phillies, who have the best record in baseball and lead the majors in rotation innings, are averaging just under six innings per start.

Through 42 games, Orioles starters have thrown 100 pitches just four times, completed seven innings only five times, and gotten through six innings 18 times. And this is the profile of an above-average starting rotation in 2024, mind you. 

The Orioles believe using six starters will be what’s best for trying to keep it that way with so little rest over the next six weeks. 

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