BALTIMORE — Routinely last summer, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde reserved some of his more lavish praise for right-hander Tyler Wells, who blossomed from a Rule 5 rookie into arguably the club’s most trusted late-inning reliever and was a bright spot during a trying season in Baltimore.
Developed as a starter, Wells took quickly to relieving and flourished in the role, earning save opportunities (and saves) by September. For a bullpen in dire need, Wells looked like a natural. And in the eyes of an organization searching for building blocks, Wells clearly stood out.
So it was notable when the Orioles reversed course this spring, deciding to prep Wells to start. MLB bullpens are replete with former starters. But big league rotations (while supplanted by swingmen) aren’t chock full with former relievers, especially ones who’ve thrived in back-end roles. The simplest solution is usually to keep them there.
What Wells and the Orioles are attempting is the more difficult solution, sensing greater potential long-term rewards. To work, the experiment will require showings like the first half of Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Yankees, when Wells shined before New York rallied against his former ‘pen mates.
Coming off a difficult season debut at Tampa Bay, Wells tossed four scoreless innings in his second career start, striking out three and walking two. Flashing four pitches — including a fastball that touched 96 mph — Wells worked in and out of traffic before finishing with a two-strikeout shutdown fourth. He left with a lead courtesy of Cedric Mullins’ second homer of the year — a two-run, 433-foot shot off Jameson Taillon. But pitch-count restrictions and a 49-minute rain delay made it so Wells was long gone by the time Travis Lakins Sr. gave up four runs in the fifth.
“The last inning was more who I am, what I was last year,” Wells said. “That mentality, that aggressiveness. Hopefully, I can take that into the first inning of the game, instead of being what I’d consider passive and not myself. Definitely taking more of an aggressive mindset into a starter mentality. It’s a constant adjustment.”
Wells last started as a prospect in the Twins’ system in 2018, missing the next two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery, before arriving in Baltimore in December 2020. A strict innings limit came last summer, with the O’s putting Wells in the ‘pen so he’d adhere to it and stick on the roster, fulfilling his Rule 5 requirement. He threw 57 innings, about half of the career-high 119 1/3 he tossed in the Minors in ‘18.
“We were protecting his innings last year,” Hyde said. “That’s why he wasn’t starting.”
Wells will be limited to around 100 innings this season and still needs time to build up, so the Orioles will continue to piggyback him with long relievers like Mike Baumann and Keegan Akin. Wells threw 54 pitches in his first start and 64 on Saturday, before giving way to Baumann. But Baumann threw only nine pitches before the skies opened and didn’t return after the delay.
It marked Wells’ longest outing in the Majors. He made 21 multi-inning appearances last season, but none more than three innings. His starts will be capped around 65-75 pitches all season as part of a progressive buildup.
“We always had the mindset with Tyler, whether he’s in the bullpen or the rotation, we’re so happy to have him, now let’s figure it out,” Hyde said. “The majority of Rule 5 guys come over and you kind of hide the guy for a while. You give him innings out of the bullpen, you’re just getting them experience and hopefully, he’s a guy for you down the road. Wells became a guy for us right away last year, which is rare.”
Meanwhile, the Orioles watched starting prospects like Akin and Baumann make more traditional conversions into relievers. Now, suddenly searching for ways to fill a John Means-sized rotation hole, Hyde said he prefers to keep Akin and Baumann in bulk-relief roles despite their starter history.
“I like to build off success,” Hyde said. “Both of these guys are in positions to have success, and they’re off to such good starts. We’re talking about what the right thing to do is. Both of those guys have thrown out of the ‘pen as long guys, and as of now, they’re staying in that role.”
Wells will remain in the rotation. But the logic around his situation is different. So is his repertoire: a high-90s fastball, effective changeup and two distinct breaking balls. Whereas Baumann is more of a three-pitch hurler with durability concerns, while Akin struggled in the rotation.
“Tyler has a starter mix,” Hyde said. “He has four pitches he can throw for strikes. We’re going to find out about him. We have high hopes and think he has a huge future, whether it’s in the rotation or the bullpen. We want to give him a look as a starter and see how it goes, because we think he’s going to be an impact big league pitcher in some role for the rest of his career.”