The Orioles reshaped their rotation depth and infield alignment in one swoop Saturday, when they acquired right-hander Adam Plutko from the Indians for cash considerations and designated Yolmer Sánchez for assignment. Sánchez had been Baltimore’s projected starting second baseman with less than a week until Opening Day.
Plutko, 29, went 13-12 with a 5.05 ERA in 50 appearances (36 starts) for Cleveland from 2016-20, mostly serving in a swingman role. He was out of Minor League options and pitched to a 5.00 ERA in six outings this spring, none exceeding two innings. His addition quells a bit of uncertainty for an Orioles team that will head north without projected starter Keegan Akin, who was optioned Friday after posting a 10.00 ERA in Grapefruit League play.
The Orioles see Plutko as a bulk-innings reliever and candidate to start games down the line. General manager/executive vice president Mike Elias said Plutko is stretched out enough to provide two-to-four-inning stints by the regular season. Plutko pitched 27 2/3 big league innings in 2020, and 109 1/3 in ’19, when he produced a career-best 4.86 ERA in 21 games (20 starts).
“He has starter traits and the ability to log innings. We’re going to need a lot of innings from a lot of different pitchers,” Elias said. “We’re concerned about pitching innings. These guys are coming off the shortened season and going into a full season. Nobody knows what to make of that, and adding to that, we have considerations about our young pitchers. These guys are unproven, they may not perform. … We’re going into a long, unknown season and want to put ourselves in a position to protect our young starters and not overtax our bullpen. So it’ll be all hands on deck.”
Elias said he projects “every single one” of the pitchers currently on the Orioles’ 40-man roster to log big league innings in 2021, barring injury. The club must still decide on the roster’s exact complexion for Opening Day. The decision regarding right-hander Félix Hernández (right elbow discomfort) could come as soon as Sunday.
As of Saturday night, the Orioles had committed publicly to only two rotation members: Opening Day starter John Means and Matt Harvey. Plutko now profiles as depth among a rotation candidate/swingman mix that includes Dean Kremer, Wade LeBlanc, Jorge López and Bruce Zimmermann.
Acquired on waivers to be Hanser Alberto’s replacement at second base this winter, Sánchez hit .190 this spring while starting every other day at second base. Still, him being DFA’d came as a surprise. Sánchez had been penciled into the leadoff spot in Saturday’s starting lineup before the move, one day after the Orioles optioned two potential replacements, Jahmai Jones and Richie Martin, to Triple-A Norfolk. Elias said Pat Valaika and Ramón Urías are the leading candidates to start at second base on Opening Day.
“We’re more than comfortable with either of those guys, or some combination, holding down that spot early on,” Elias said. “That’s why we made the move that we made.”
As recently as Thursday, O’s manager Brandon Hyde said he was “very, very pleased with how he’s played” when asked about Sánchez, who won a Gold Glove Award with the White Sox in 2019. Sánchez was set to earn $1 million this season. Urías, who turned heads early in spring as a super-utility candidate, replaced Sánchez in the lineup for Saturday’s 8-5 loss to the Braves.
The Orioles also have utility candidate Stevie Wilkerson still in camp, but bringing him north would require adding him to the 40-man roster, which is currently full. They could also scour the waiver wire for other fits, targeting out-of-options players who might become available prior to Opening Day.
Without that happening, the most likely scenario is either Valaika or Urías manning second early on, with the other serving in a super-utility role. That would allow Baltimore to carry a three-man bench and 14 pitchers.