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Why Orioles manager Brandon Hyde is considering taking César Valdez out of the closer’s role

Friday’s defeat to the Washington Nationals was the Orioles’ 11th in their past 13 games. They haven’t had much of a need for a closer.

Getting the ball to César Valdez in the ninth inning has been “challenging,” Hyde said before the latest loss. Valdez, the 36-year-old journeyman, has been among Baltimore’s most effective relievers since joining the club late in 2020, moving into the closer’s role with weeks left in the season and carrying that mantle into this year.

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But a lack of effective right-handed relievers in front of him has Hyde considering a change. While Paul Fry and Tanner Scott have developed into one of baseball’s best left-handed duos, the Orioles’ assortment of right-handed relievers has had its share of struggles, even against same-handed batters.

“We’ve considered a lot of role adjustments,” Hyde said. “I think there’s been some moments this season so far where, especially in the [New York] Yankees series, like a heavy right-handed lineup pocket or half of a lineup that’s coming up, there’s been for me some consideration for putting Valdez in there in the seventh or the eighth inning.”

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The issue, Hyde said, then became who would pitch the ninth if Valdez managed to get them there with a lead. He said he’s beginning to consider giving those opportunities to Fry, the longest-tenured member of Baltimore’s pitching staff. Before allowing three runs in a tie game in his most recent outing, Fry had given up only one run in his previous 16 appearances. He’s been effective against both lefties and righties, limiting all opposing batters to a .511 OPS while facing right-handed hitters more often. Scott, while possessing the electric stuff that’s more typical of a closer, has been erratic at times but still strong against both sides.

“We just don’t have the guy behind [Valdez] right now, and I think Paul Fry, for me, has worked his way into that,” Hyde said. “I could possibly do that with him, but there’s not a safety net there, so I’ve been trying to try to get the ball to him in some capacity, just because we don’t have much experience in the ninth inning besides that.”

Valdez had five saves, all in Triple-A, in his nomadic professional career before securing 11 with a 2.01 ERA during his time as an Oriole. He’s also far from a standard closer in that he relies largely on a baffling changeup known as the Dead Fish rather than a high-velocity fastball.

That changeup-based arsenal has also led to him being far more effective against left-handers, who don’t have an extra-base hit against him in 2021, compared to right-handers, who he’s allowed a .302 batting average to but similarly without much power.

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Still, the only regular members of Baltimore’s bullpen who have held right-handers to a lower OPS are Fry, Scott and — narrowly — righty Adam Plutko, who has typically been used in a fireman role with runners on base in the middle innings. Plutko, though, has struggled against lefties, allowing an OPS over .900.

Practically every other right-handed member of the bullpen has had far more success against opposite-handed batters, with Cole Sulser, Tyler Wells and Dillon Tate entering Friday having limited them to sub-. 100 batting averages and OPSes under .500. Similarly, Travis Lakins Sr. has allowed an OPS 250 points lower to lefties compared to right-handers.

It’s possible the Orioles are only a couple of weeks away from their ideal solution: rookie fireballer Hunter Harvey. The hard-throwing right-hander is pitching in extended spring training after straining his left oblique muscle in an exhibition. In his career, he’s faced 41 right-handed batters — a similar amount to what the Orioles’ primary relief corps has done in 2021 — and struck out more than a quarter while limiting them to a .216 average, though a handful of home runs have raised their OPS against him.

It didn’t take long after Harvey debuted late in 2019 for Hyde to deploy him in the late innings, and the same occurred once he came off the injured list in 2020. Given the current shape of Baltimore’s bullpen, his arrival early next month will certainly be welcome. It’s possible the Orioles’ understandable caution with Harvey, given his lengthy injury history, will prevent him from eventually supplanting Valdez as closer this season, but Hyde could use every valuable arm he can get his hands on.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Hyde said. “I just don’t have a ton of guys down there with much experience, so Valdez has shown that he can get some outs in the ninth inning, and the games that we’ve won, majority of the time, he’s been on the field for it at the end of the game. But yeah, that could change going forward.”

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