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Royals' shutdown bullpen shows Orioles, other clubs where priorities should be

When the Orioles played the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 American League Championship Series, much was made about the clubs' fierce bullpens.

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(Here's an aside from that 2014 Sun cover story. We wanted a portrait photo of a few members of that bullpen, but were denied. Unless, the key pitchers stressed, the entire bullpen could be in the shot. We agreed and the cover shot happened with no further concern. Pretty cool sign of unity there.)

Anyway, the Orioles had the third best bullpen ERA in the AL in 2014 with a 3.10 mark. The Royals, believe it or not, were fifth with a 3.30. Both numbers were a bit misleading since the units got better as 2014 marched on.

This year, the Orioles remained third with a 3.21 bullpen ERA, but the Royals jumped to first in the AL with a phenomenal 2.72 mark – that's a half-of-a run better than the second-place team, the Cleveland Indians.

So, what could be better than that?

How about a 2.39 bullpen ERA?

That's what the Royals relievers accomplished in their first 12 playoff games heading into Wednesday night – 13 earned runs in 49 innings. Kansas City's bullpen was credited with six wins in those 12 games and struck out 71 batters and walking 13.

And they did all that without closer Greg Holland, who struggled through elbow issues this year and ultimately had Tommy John surgery.

If the Royals win the World Series, it's going to put an exclamation point on a trend that has been bubbling at the surface for a couple of years now: bullpens have five or more shutdown relievers.

And that brings us to the Orioles and what's in store for this offseason.

At the end of 2014, the Orioles 'pen included Zach Britton, Darren O'Day, Andrew Miller and Tommy Hunter, with Brad Brach, Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland also getting some key outs.

From that group, it's possible that only Britton and Brach could be left in 2016. Miller left for a four-year, $36 million deal with the New York Yankees last offseason. On Wednesday, he was named the 2015 Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award winner.

Hunter was traded in July and O'Day is a free agent after this World Series and could command a four-year deal on the open market. Matusz is a potential nontender candidate in his final year of arbitration and McFarland could be a left-handed option in the rotation instead of the bullpen.

That's not to say that the Orioles bullpen can't continue to be strong in 2016. Britton excelled as closer in his first full season in the spot and Brach is ready for an even greater role. And rookies Mychal Givens (1.80 ERA in 30 innings) and Oliver Drake (2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings) did more than hold their own.

Givens and Drake were the Orioles' co-winners of the 2015 Jim Palmer Prize, given annually to the best minor league pitcher (or pitchers) in the organization.

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On Wednesday, Drake was named the top reliever in the minors by milb.com – a pretty impressive accolade.

Add in a lefty – Matusz or someone else – and at least one other reliever and the Orioles bullpen should be solid again. Re-signing O'Day, who has posted a 2.28 ERA or lower in all four seasons with the Orioles, could make it elite, assuming Drake and Givens can build on their rookie years and the others repeat their performances from last season.

It'll be no surprise to see teams make strengthening their bullpens a priority this winter. It'll be interesting to see if the Orioles pay what it costs -- to keep O'Day or buy someone else -- and continue that trend.

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