Orioles manager Buck Showalter, during his appearance as part of the team's Hot Stove radio show on 105.7 The Fan, rightfully praised his bullpen as a strength that can be expected to improve in 2017.
"We might/could improve by having, say a Donnie Hart all year," Showalter said on the show. "We might/could improve by having a healthy Darren O'Day all year. He only pitched, what 30 innings this year? Something like that. Who could expect Zach [Britton] and Brad [Brach] to do the same thing they did out of the bullpen, but why not?
"Mychal Givens, you've got to put in that same group as [Dylan] Bundy and [Kevin] Gausman — a young guy who has another level to go to. We just got him to where he'd throw his changeup the last month of the season and defend himself against left-handed hitters. He was stubborn with it, but finally he started having success with it. Mychal has got a chance to go to another level, too."
All that does, however, is illustrate some of the challenges facing the team this offseason. We can call that group — Britton, Brach, Hart, O'Day and Givens — the valuable ones, as those are the ones Showalter assumes teams will be asking for at the winter meetings come Sunday.
"We're going to get beat up about people asking us about moving our bullpen, because when guys like [free agent closer Aroldis] Chapman leave the board, they're going to look at a lot of our guys as potential cheaper versions to close," Showalter said. "And we're not giving them away, trust me. They're going to have to pay dearly for us to do something like that."
But the inclusion of all of them — including Hart, who Showalter said would have to pitch his way off the club in spring training, not onto it — means the rest of the bullpen will be built in a way that could bite the Orioles the same way it did at times this year. They'll account for five of the eight spots, and another at this point must be allotted to whichever of the team's six starting pitchers isn't in the rotation. However you fill the last two spots, it's best for the organization's future if it's not one of their hopeful future starters.
In talking about the long relief role that Vance Worley occupied for most of the season, Showalter speaks with such reverential tones that it's easy to overstake their importance. But with the deadline to tender contracts to players looming Friday afternoon, Worley and his projected arbitration salary of over $3 million are easy for a team looking to save money to let go.
That would be sacrificing a constant that the team, given some of the question marks in its starting rotation, will likely come to rely on.
Consider this: Last year, the Orioles had 15 relief appearances of three innings or longer with one run or less allowed. Worley had six of them, with Tyler Wilson next in line with three. The Orioles had 22 relief appearances of three innings or longer overall, but consider all of the times a young pitcher brought up to eat innings in one of those tailspin series made matters worse.
Worley, he of the 3.53 ERA, was used in every role imaginable, but he was at his best in that long relief role, saving innings for the rest of the bullpen when a starter couldn't get deep in the game.
The purchase of Logan Verrett this week from the New York Mets, in the eyes of many, was a sign Worley's days may be numbered, with the right-hander joining Tyler Wilson, Mike Wright, Parker Bridwell, Joe Gunkel, Chris Lee, Jayson Aquino, T.J. McFarland and Jason Garcia on a list of pitchers with options who could be deputized in Worley's role, then be sent down to keep someone fresh.
But in looking at how the 2017 bullpen might be constructed, counting on all of them as long relief options is a bad sign for the organization and its future. These are, after all, the pitchers the Orioles will be counting on to be starters in 2018 and beyond, when they face the possibility of life without all four of Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley.
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In that case, the eratic schedule and Norfolk shuttle life may not be sufficient in preparing as many as three of those young pitchers to join the rotation full-time the following year. For pretty much all of those young pitchers, a major league bullpen role could end up being their role. Depending on where they are in their careers, being there for all or most of 2017 might not help them grow past that.
For pitchers like Wilson and Wright, who spent most of the first half of 2016 in the major league rotation, they're in an awful state of limbo where Triple-A isn't enough of a challenge but there's little room for growth in a sporadic long relief role at the major league level. McFarland's time riding the shuttle has led to him regressing a bit, while Aquino, Lee and Gunkel could reasonably remain starters for the entire year at Triple-A.
If the Orioles are that intent on saving a few million dollars in non-tendering Worley and using that cadre of up-and-comers in his place, there could be long-term repercussions for a pitching staff that will undergo a lot of change in the next year or so.
And when that change happens, forget how a year of uncertain roles could impact those developing pitchers — wouldn't it be nice to have someone like Worley who can slide into the rotation should they not be ready?
To ascribe that much to a decision on whether to tender a player like Worley might be a bit of a stretch, but the Orioles pitching staff could look different this time next year, and there's no telling how having to find a facsimile for a proven major league swingman out of your cache of future starters might prove detrimental to the outlook of the team.