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Orioles reliever Brad Brach set up for interesting 2018 after serving as interim closer

The Orioles could lose several key players to free agency after the 2018 season. And while the potential departures of Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Zach Britton will weigh heavily on this offseason, another — right-handed reliever Brad Brach — is also worthy of attention.

Brach is one of the Orioles’ top success stories of the past several years, going from middling middle reliever when the club acquired him from the San Diego Padres in a minor trade four offseasons ago to one of the game’s top setup men. Britton’s injuries this past season gave Brach three stints as closer; he converted 18 of 22 save opportunities in that role despite some rocky moments. (Brach was technically charged with two other blown saves in setup-role situations)

Still, as the Orioles travel south for next week’s winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., teams will almost certainly ask executive vice president Dan Duquette about the availability of the Orioles’ 2018 free agents, and Brach’s name will likely come up. Teams value closing experience, and if other clubs put added stock in this past season to see Brach as a potential full-time closer, he’ll come as a bargain because he’s only expected to make $5.2 million in 2018, according to arbitration salary projections by MLBTradeRumors.com.

Whether he remains with the Orioles or not, Brach said he absorbed a lot from his first extended experience as a closer at the major league level that will help him going into next season.

“I think I’ve really learned this year that I go through periods where everything’s fine and then I go two or three weeks where I kind of get off-kilter there and I’m just not good for two or three weeks,” Brach said during the team’s last series of the season at the Tampa Bay Rays. “And I think I have to take that as a lesson where I have to learn to just get rid of the bad outings and just kind of get back to where I’ve been, because it’s not like the stuff is changing as much as some kind of mental thing changes and I just kind of fall off the wagon there for a couple of weeks. So I think that’s what I take from this year.”

While it appears the Orioles would be more likely to deal Britton than Brach because of the belief he could net the organization a greater haul to help it remain competitive after 2018 — and the team was close to trading Britton to the Houston Astros at the nonwaiver trade deadline before a deal broke down in the 11th hour — the team feels most comfortable trading from their bullpen than anywhere else because of its bevy of proven late-inning arms (Britton, Brach, Mychal Givens and Darren O’Day).

Teams have shown interest in Brach in previous offseasons, but he’s stayed with the Orioles, and keeping him in the fold paid off last season when Britton went down. His success in the setup role made him the best fit to take over when Britton missed most of the first half of 2017 with a forearm injury.

Though Brach, 31, struggled to duplicate his success of the previous season in 2016, when he went 10-4 with a 2.05 ERA, 24 holds and two saves in 79 innings, he still performed well in the closer role. And after a 2016 season in which he posted 0.91 ERA in 49 1/3 first-half innings, earning a trip to his first All-Star Game, he put up such strong numbers that a repeat performance was unlikely.

“I know for myself, I put — not necessarily pressure — but I put a lot of expectations on myself and I think a lot of times, it’s hard to live up to last year,” Brach said. “I look at last year and it’s hard to live up to what I did last year. Just looking at that, those were some really good numbers and it’s hard to produce that every year in and year out. You’re talking about three or four guys who can do it. Obviously, I’d like to put myself in that standard, but it’s definitely hard to live up to.”

Still, over the past three seasons, Brach’s 2.62 ERA ranked second among major league relievers who have logged 200 or more innings over that stretch, trailing only New York Yankees closer Dellin Betances’ 2.41 ERA from 2015 to 2017. And Betances is projected to make more than $1 million more next year than Brach did in 2017 in his second arbitration-eligible season.

Brach’s stint as closer started out well. He didn’t allow a run in his first 11 appearances in 2017 — half coming in the setup role and the other half as the interim closer — but ran into trouble over a stretch in mid-May during which his ERA rose from 1.69 to 4.05 over a five-outing span. The lowlight of that stretch was when Brach allowed three runs in the ninth in a walk-off loss to the Washington Nationals on May 10. Brach blew his next save opportunity six days later in Detroit, but then regrouped, allowing no runs over his next 13 outings.

Britton returned shortly after the All-Star break, and Brach had a respectable 2.45 ERA in the second half — mostly pitching in the setup role again — before he ended his season with an ugly outing in the team’s final game, allowing five runs in one-third of an inning at the Tampa Bay Rays, raising his ERA by 0.65. There weren’t many late leads — or close games for that matter — for Brach to hold down the stretch.

For Brach, the season offered the opportunity for him to show he could close out games at the major league level — he was a closer in the minors — but he acknowledged that he struggled with his consistency moving between roles.

“It was a great opportunity to close and I think for myself personally it was nice to know that I could do it after I was doing [so]for so long in the minor leagues,” Brach said. “But it’s also disappointing because I know there are a lot of games that I went into — especially tied games — where I let up a run or so and gave up the lead. I think that was probably the most disappointing thing for me personally. I hate blowing saves and I hate giving up runs, and a lot of those times it seemed like it was when the game was tied or I just kind of let the other team just kind of get back in.”

Because of that experience, Brach should receive another significant raise in his final year of arbitration eligibility, a projected $2.15 million bump from the $3.05 million he won through an arbitration hearing last season.

One of the statistics the Orioles used in arguing their arbitration case against Brach last spring was his game leverage index (gmLI), which is used to quantify the pressure situation a reliever faces when he enters the game based against a league average of 1.0. In 2016, Brach’s gmLI was 1.26, and as a result of more save opportunities, that number went up to a team-best 1.46 in 2017.

Even though he didn’t duplicate previous years’ success, much of that could be because of middle-relief struggles and injuries, as well as a starting rotation and inconsistent offense that didn’t hand the late-inning relievers many leads to hold. There is depth there — and even though this could be Britton and Brach’s final year with the team — the Orioles have been good at developing relievers.

They have three veteran late-inning arms in Britton, Brach and O’Day, and Givens has emerged as a potential closer in waiting while right-hander Miguel Castro showed he has a future as a multiple-inning reliever if he’s not moved into the starting rotation.

“Our bullpen is strong,” executive vice president Dan Duquette said in October, when wrapping up the season. “It’s always been a strength of the club.”

The front office has made it clear that the team is committed to making one more run with this core group before it could break up after 2018, but dealing from the bullpen to help the future will be tempting this offseason, and Brach might hold his most value as a trade chip now. He is projected to make just $5.2 million next season, which is not much for a late-inning reliever with closer experience. The Orioles’ faith in him made the team open to dealing Britton at the trade deadline.

And while Brach is still on a club-friendly salary as a closer, making him more valuable to the Orioles, it could also make him one of the Orioles’ most valuable trade chips this offseason, especially since Britton’s trade stock is down coming off an injury-riddled season and O’Day is owed $18 million over the next two years.

eencina@baltsun.com

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