Orioles manager Brandon Hyde will not let himself get pigeonholed. The fact that this is a rebuilding team has given him license to drive the narrative in any direction he wants.
Take the bullpen situation, for instance.
In a perfect baseball world, the relief roles would be clearly defined. There would be a long reliever/spot starter, two or three true middle guys, a left-right setup combination and a stone-cold closer.
In the Orioles bullpen, there are a couple of veterans and a whole bunch of young guys trying to figure out just where they fit in at the major league level. So, Hyde made it clear early on that anybody could show up in any role at any time, and that’s pretty much how things have played out during the first two weeks of the new season.
The one exception is right-hander Mychal Givens, who would be the ninth-inning closer if the Orioles were going to designate anyone as such. Instead, he is what you might call the “anytime closer,’’ because he’s the guy who Hyde turns to at that pivotal moment when the game could go either way.
If the Orioles want to win a reasonable number of games this season, there really is no other choice. There are teams that have a whole bullpen full of pitchers who can stop the bleeding at any time, but the Orioles will have to pick their spots carefully, especially with a pitching staff that already has been beset by injuries to starter Alex Cobb and reliever Nate Karns.
That might cost someone such as Givens some money over the long run, because full-time closers are the relievers who generally get the biggest contracts. But Hyde said that perspective has been evolving over the past few years.
“I think what is changing a little bit is that it’s not just the closers that are getting paid any more, but high-leverage guys,” Hyde said. “The Josh Haders, Andrew Millers, [Adam] Ottavino, are getting paid, and I think players recognize it.
“I think teams are more apt to use their best pitchers in the highest-leverage situations and I think front offices are recognizing that and are paying guys, so I think that’s changed the last few years. I think Andrew really set the benchmark there and Adam just got paid in New York [with a three-year, $27 million deal], and I think the players have bought into it.”
Givens isn’t thinking that far ahead. He said this week that he’s satisfied to do the things he is doing to help the Orioles win as many games as they can and credits the veteran relievers that came before him with helping deal with any situation.
“Yeah, I’m just trying to keep us in the game,’’ Givens said this week. “We’ve got a young bullpen and — learning around Andrew Miller and the things he’s done in his career and being around him at the [World Baseball Classic] helped me a lot. And especially being with Darren [O’Day], and Brad [Brach] and Zack [Britton] helped me as well.”
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Of course, it was that mentorship — and the flurry of deals that sent several of those mentors elsewhere in July — that made Givens the obvious choice to inherit the closer role during the final months of the 2018 season.
He saved eight games in 10 opportunities in August and September and would have figured to start this season in that same role in a conventional bullpen schematic, but he gets it. He gets what is going on here and the role he should play in the early stages of the rebuilding project.
“It’s not about closing out the games,” Givens said. “It’s about trying to win games. That’s the most important thing and it should be on everybody’s mind. And Hyde putting me in those situations and having the confidence and trust in me to do that means a lot, so I’m going to do whatever I can do to help the team.”
Hyde recognizes that using his most effective short reliever in such a flexible situation might be considered unorthodox, but it’s the best way to fulfill his stated mission this season — putting the development of the club’s young players first while still trying to win every game.
So, Givens got the call when young Jimmy Yacabonis got in a major jam Monday night against the Oakland Athletics, leaving with the bases loaded and the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the eighth inning.
Givens came on and played the “high-leverage” reliever to perfection, retiring both batters he faced and keeping all of the Orioles’ three-run lead intact. The Orioles would break the game open in the bottom of the inning, giving Hyde the ability to turn the ninth inning over to someone else in a 12-4 win.
“Mike would go out in the ninth inning [Monday] and get the save if we didn’t score those runs in the bottom of the eighth, so he’s going to get saves,” Hyde said, “but I want to use Mike when the game’s on the line, if I think we have a chance to win the game or prevent a team from rallying or whatever may be. That’s why I had Mike up in the eighth inning and he pitched great.”