Does Albert Suarez have a future in the Orioles rotation?

After a late scratch for Tyler Wells, veteran journeyman Albert Suarez received a spot start opportunity for the Orioles where he had a strong debut against the Minnesota Twins.

With Wells on the Injured List and other spots in the rotation potentially up for grabs, could Suarez become a member of the Orioles rotation in the long run?

Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles
Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

For the first time since September, 2017, right-handed pitcher Albert Suarez stepped onto a major league mound on Wednesday in anticipation of a spot start and an opportunity to help the Baltimore Orioles sweep the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles came into the game with an 11-6 record and had the chance to end the day in first place of the American League East with a victory, coupled with a Yankees loss to the Blue Jays.

After throwing his final warmup pitch, Suarez got set to face Twins leadoff hitter Edouard Julien. The first pitch for Suarez at the MLB level in more than six years sailed in at 94.8 miles per hour and was swung through by Julien. The second pitch came in at 96 miles per hour with the same result, before Suarez got Julien swinging on the fourth pitch to record the strikeout. Ultimately, Suarez finished his first inning of work in nine pitches, all fastballs of at least 94.8 MPH, before allowing the Orioles bats to get going.

This strong first inning set the tone for Suarez's afternoon, as he finished the day with 5.2 shutout innings pitched, along with four strikeouts. Suarez allowed only three hits in the outing, but was pulled so that southpaw reliever Danny Coulombe could face a lefty in Alex Kirilloff with two outs and a runner on second base in the sixth inning. In all, Suarez ended with a no decision, as the bullpen allowed the Twins to take the lead in the seventh before a walk-off home run from Cedric Mullins ended the game with fans going home happy.

Suarez came in to the start in an undesirable situation for the Orioles. Rotation piece Tyler Wells was a late scratch and was ultimately placed on the Injured List ,which means that his spot in the rotation is open for at least several starts. Outside of their two aces in Corbin Burnes and Grayson Rodriguez, the O's rotation has struggled to record strong outings to keep the offense in games. The O's most likely never planned on Suarez being much of a rotation option, but a strong spring training, coupled with his outstanding outing on Wednesday, may put a dent in those plans.

Can Albert Suarez crash Orioles' rotation party?

Of course, the Orioles will likely receive more rotational reinforcements, soon as Kyle Bradish and John Means are both on the rehab trail. However, recovery from injury for starting pitchers is never a certainty, as setbacks and other issues may still arise. For one, on the same night that Suarez pitched lights out in Baltimore, Means struggled mightily in Norfolk; he could not finish the first inning before allowing five earned runs. The O's are also approaching Bradish cautiously, as a setback in his rehab could cost him a good chunk of the season, given the nature of UCL injuries.

The other two starters already in the rotation, Dean Kremer and Cole Irvin, have had struggles of their own, which could cost each man a rotation spot if they continue. Thus far, Kremer has an ERA of 4.96 with a 76 ERA+. while Irvin has a 6.75 ERA and 66 ERA+. The struggles for Irvin are particularly troublesome, since the O's already optioned him to Norfolk early last season, and could certainly do the same this year if the struggles continue.

As for Suarez, his first start gave the O's reasons for optimism. Along with the results, his peripherals give reason for the team to believe he can replicate his form. Wednesday, Suarez relied on four pitches: a fastball, cutter, changeup, and curveball. He relied heavily on the four-seam fastball, as 62.7% of his pitches came of this variety, followed by 22.7% usage of his cutter. In other words, he used a fastball for more than 85% of his pitches.

He has changed his arsenal since his last MLB stint in 2016 and '17. Back then, he relied on a sinker and slider, which is no longer in his arsenal, and favored his curveball much more than he did Wednesday. The four-seamer that he used nearly two-thirds of the time on Wednesday was not even a part of his repertoire in 2017.

Along with his change in repertoire, the velocity/movement combination of his pitches was certainly a strong point of his outing. The main factor behind his success was the horizontal movement that came with the velocity of his fastball. The velocity of his four-seamer averaged 95.9 miles per hour with 10.4 inches of horizontal break. The horizontal break was 3.7 inches -- or 54% more than the average pitch, as it kept tailing away from hitters all afternoon.

In addition to the four-seam fastball, his changeup also had above-average horizontal break, while the cutter had above-average vertical break. With similarly strong break on his changeup and fastball, Suarez fooled hitters through mixing those two pitches. The velocity on his changeup was 10 miles per hour slower than his fastball, which helped in fooling hitters.

Additionally, the contrast between his four-seam fastball and cutter also kept hitters guessing. The cutter had 24.9 inches of vertical break and averaged 87.8 miles per hour, while the four-seamer essentially had no vertical break.

The main issue for Suarez from his first start is that he seemed to rely way too heavily on his fastball. As mentioned earlier, 85 percent of his pitches were fastballs, with more than 62 percent being four-seamers. Despite the strong movement and velocity on these pitches, over-reliance can become predictable, as he makes more starts and more film is produced on him. After all, MLB hitters are in the majors for a reason, and they can make adjustments quickly. Suarez will need to make his own adjustments to keep himself from being too predictable and hittable.

There is plenty of precedent for Orioles pitchers making strong starts in their debuts that were spot starts. In 2015, Mike Wright pitched eight shutout innings in his MLB debut, but finished the season with a 6.04 ERA in 44.2 innings. Similarly, David Hess made a spot start in a doubleheader against the Rays in 2018, where he pitched six innings and allowed three earned runs in a victory. Similar to Wright, Hess struggled over the rest of his Orioles career.

On the opposite end of the coin, there are several examples of recent starters who became quality contributors to the rotation after spot starts, including John Means in 2018/19 and Austin Voth in 2022. Of course, Means made a spot start near the end of the 2018 season against the eventual World Series champions, defeating the Red Sox and setting himself up to become an All-Star in 2019.

Voth came to the Orioles in 2022, where he was mostly used as a reliever before being thrown into the rotation in late June. Voth finished the season with a 3.04 ERA in 83 innings pitched and 17 starts for the Orioles.

All this is to say, if Suarez becomes a regular member of the rotation, then there are any number of ways the rest of the season can go. Ultimately, Suarez will need to make adjustments to continue to have strong performances as he did on Wednesday. With the state of the rotation as it is, Suarez has an opportunity to insert himself into the rotation. How he will respond to this opportunity is the next question.