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How the back end of the Orioles roster came to define their 2017 season

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

While the Orioles’ roster maneuvering can become a punch line over the course of a six-month season, with constant changes required to keep the pitching staff afloat, this year's bevvy of transactions actually tells a pretty coherent story.

From their Opening Day roster to the bloated one at the end of the season, the last one or two spots on the Orioles roster traces the team's path from contention to despair, then back to relevance before a September collapse.

Whether it's a luxurious array of bench options or a short bullpen, how the Orioles used the back of their roster is a unique way to examine a season that eventually went sideways.

Opening Day: With left-hander Wade Miley battling illness late in spring training and Chris Tillman shelved with a shoulder injury, the Orioles broke camp with three starting pitchers. That left room for Oliver Drake and Vidal Nuño as the seventh and eighth men in the bullpen and Craig Gentry on the bench. It was a luxury that only lasted a week, but they didn't lose with such a deep roster over the first four games.

April: The Orioles were spared a "tough decision" when Joey Rickard injured his finger sliding into second base right before they needed to activate Miley on April 10, but Drake didn't last much longer, as he was designated for assignment on April 13 as the team added Stefan Crichton to the roster.

Crichton went down for a day to make room for the fifth starter, Alec Asher, but was back up again a day later when Zach Britton went on the disabled list with a wrist strain. Jayson Aquino came up to make a start the following week, giving them a seven-man bullpen, but April was a good stretch for the Orioles, who finished that month 15-8.

May: Once the calendar turned, the Orioles' fortune soon followed. The final week of April featured some brutal games by the long-relief corps in New York that foreshadowed what was to come. They remained at seven relievers because they only needed a fifth starter four times before Tillman was activated on May 7, but once he was, the bullpen went down to seven players as Rickard returned and they kept a five-man bench.

Things had worked out well to that point, with a league-best 22-10 record. Shortly thereafter, that began to bite them. In the ensuring three weeks, they added nine pitchers for 18 games, even with three days off, and they went into a pitching funk that would border on historic. Britton was back on the disabled list, and the only constants were Brad Brach, Darren O'Day and Mychal Givens. By May 17, they were back to a seven-man bullpen and a shorter bench without Gentry, which lightened the options on that front. But there was plenty of churn outside those three. Everyone else churned through the three remaining bullpen spots. The Orioles ended the month 27-24, just three games above .500.

June: Richard Bleier had begun to stick in the bullpen by that point, so there was a little less turnover on that front, but not much better results. The short starts meant pitchers came in and pitched on the day they were added and left the next day, and the back end of the roster didn't do much to help things out. The team infamously allowed a record-setting five or more runs in 20 straight games. That corresponded with 10 pitching moves, and the team was hampered by a shoulder problem for O'Day as well. Without the back end of their roster being an asset, they went 12-16 for the second straight month and went into July limping.

July: As all that was happening, Miguel Castro and Bleier had become assets in long relief, and the July 5 activation of Britton brought some roster stability. Once he was activated, the Orioles didn't make a pitching call-up for a full month.

That meant the Orioles could add an asset to their bench in the form of infielder Johnny Giavotella, who didn't play much but represented at least a strong backup infield option without J.J. Hardy or Ryan Flaherty. They added Gentry in the final weekend of the month as Mark Trumbo went on the disabled list, but it was otherwise a stable month.

However, the back end of the roster didn't give them much. Hyun Soo Kim made four starts before he was dealt to Philadelphia in a trade that brought in Jeremy Hellickson, while Giavotella made two starts despite being on the roster for nearly a month. That didn't give much flexibility or depth to a lineup that was still trying to find its groove, and the 12-14 month reflected that.

August: The second-last full month of the season brought a renaissance in the form of shortstop Tim Beckham and a torrid month for the offense in general, though the roster didn't exactly stabilize with that. The move of Chris Tillman to the bullpen meant the Orioles essentially had a six-man bullpen for the entire month once Trumbo returned on Aug. 9. It was a good six with Britton, Brach, O'Day, Givens, Bleier and Castro (plus Tillman, sporadically), but by the end of the month, that was stretched thin.

They didn't benefit on the position player side from having the short bullpen, though. By mid-month, they needed to add Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander after his elbow/shoulder rehabilitation, and he didn't get much game action in that span. Flaherty returned as an insurance policy all over the diamond, but he didn't get much time either.

By the time Sept. 1 roster expansion came, the Orioles bullpen was longing for reinforcements. Nonetheless, they went 17-12 in August and pulled themselves back into contention.

September: The Sept. 1 call-ups helped provide plenty of options both in relief and on the bench, but it was the cost of five months of playing short on both fronts that contributed to the Orioles wearing down and going 7-21 from that point on.

Having a light bench meant the team's regulars weren't spelled with a day off often, and the struggle of having to stay afloat all season caught up with them. They ended up using the extra roster spots for a six-man rotation to give some rest to the starting pitchers, but they were taxed, too.

A long season tends to provide receipts, and the Orioles got theirs in September.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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