The news that Orioles bullpen coach Dom Chiti was leaving the club to take a developmental position with the Atlanta Braves was a surprise for many within the organization. That leaves the Orioles in need of not only a replacement for pitching coach Dave Wallace, but also a new bullpen coach.
Although their titles were different, Wallace — a veteran pitching coach who managed strong pitching staffs with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets — and Chiti worked closely on all major league pitching matters. Over their three years with the organization, their message resonated with an Orioles pitching staff that made significant strides and helped the club reach the postseason twice.
While most in the Orioles organization expected this to be Wallace's final year of major league coaching, Chiti was expected to return. Chiti said he planned to and wanted to remain the Orioles bullpen coach in 2017, but once his one-year contract with the team expired Monday without being renewed — and without a new offer from the club — he had to think of other options. Chiti said he tried to reach out to Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette on multiple occasions since the end of the season to discuss his future, but said his calls went unreturned.
One opportunity emerged quickly from the Atlanta Braves. A call from Braves president of baseball operations John Hart came Tuesday, asking if he was available. He was, and within 48 hours, Chiti — along with Wallace — were heading to the Braves, with whom they worked together for several years helping to develop Atlanta's young pitchers before returning to dugout roles with the Orioles in the 2014 season.
Chiti will now be the Braves director of pitching and Wallace will work as the special assistant to pitching. The moves were reported Wednesday by The Baltimore Sun and announced by the Braves on Thursday afternoon.
Chiti said he will relish his time with the Orioles, an organization for which he was a player, coach and scout. He returned to the Orioles to be reunited with manager Buck Showalter. Chiti was the Texas Rangers bullpen coach in 2006, Showalter's last of four seasons as manager of the club. Chiti said he regards Showalter as a brother, and after working with many Orioles pitchers who flourished under the tutelage of the experienced duo of himself and Wallace, he said he regarded his players as sons.
"The three years I spent in Baltimore will always be cherished, and they'll be cherished from the opportunity to work with Buck, who I consider to be one of the best managers in the game, and also the opportunity to work with a lot of pitchers who were very special," Chiti said. "They weren't just special as pitchers, but they were special as humans and people, and they were good people. Those are the things I'll always take away, and I'll go away having a lot of respect for those guys. They know I love them."
Orioles left-hander Zach Britton, who became one of the game's top closers under Wallace and Chiti, said he was "disappointed" to see Chiti go, but said he understood Chiti's situation.
"I've been in contact with him quite a bit and I know he wanted to come back," Britton said. "Atlanta offered him a good opportunity and, you know, before he made his decision, he called me and said, 'Hey, this isn't a reflection on you. I want to be back working with you.' I know how he feels about me and vice versa. I think the job he did with me, along with Wally, you can just kind of see where I was before I got to work with them and then where I'm at now. So, I think that just speaks to the kind of coaches they are."
Both had a major impact in strengthening the Orioles bullpen, which was the best in the American League in 2016, and several young pitchers — including Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy — made strides last season under the duo.
"What they brought to the organization was huge, not just to me but a lot of people," Britton said. "So, it's tough to see them both go, and now you kind of look to the future and I'm kind of anxious to see where we're heading from a coaching standpoint. It's tough to see Wally go, but I kind of understood where he was in his life and I was kind of prepared for that through the whole season. I wasn't really prepared for Dom to leave."
Wallace, 69, had a unique deal with the organization that allowed him to leave the team to address family problems during the season, and when those gaps became more frequent, it became likely that he would step away from the grind of major league coaching. But Chiti was in a slightly different scenario. He seemed invigorated by returning to the dugout, and he said he felt like he made it clear he wanted to remain with the Orioles, though there was no indication he was campaigning for the pitching coach job and was fine with his current role.
Showalter expected to retain Chiti, but the organization had little dialogue with him since the season ended. Chiti was never made an offer to renew his contract. When Chiti arrived in Baltimore before the 2014 season, he signed a two-year deal, but last year was renewed for just one season despite his desire to remain in Baltimore longer. One source said Chiti turned down a two-year deal last offseason.
But the one domino that might have led to his leaving was Wallace's departure. Once the pitching coach job opened, filling that spot became the organization's top priority, and Duquette said that took precedence. The team is still in the process of interviewing for a pitching coach, and once that position is filled the new hire will have input on hiring a bullpen coach.
"When Dave resigned his position, we effectively started looking for a new pitching coach, and we're in the process of interviewing candidates now to find a capable pitching coach," Duquette said. "Dom and Dave were an effective team because they worked together on pitching in Atlanta and they understood each other.
"Faced with the option of replacing the pitching coach, I think it's important to get the pitching coach hired first and then we can address the bullpen situation. So, that's how we're going about it. We're trying to find the right pitching coach. And after we find the right match for the pitching coach, we'll address the bullpen coach along with [input] from the new pitching coach."
Since starting that search, the contracts of several major league coaches — including Chiti —- expired on Oct. 31, leaving them unsigned and free to go elsewhere.
"That process is ongoing," Duquette said. "We're assembling our coaching staff for the 2017 season currently and we'll have an announcement once we get all the coaching staff signed for the 2017 team. We're continuing to work on that."