Throughout much of their successful run under manager Buck Showalter, one of the Orioles' biggest strengths has been their effective bullpen.
A recent ESPN survey of talent evaluators, coaches and media analysts placed Showalter as the game's second-best skipper and second-best for handling pitching staffs, behind only San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy.
Showalter is known not just for putting his relievers in the right situations, but also sometimes putting them in unconventional spots because he wants to protect against overuse, which can lead to arm fatigue and, potentially, serious injury. And he and Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette are the kings of using the minor leagues to continually bring in fresh arms. It's not a system that is for everyone, but it has worked for Showalter and company.
Although he won't admit it, these next few weeks before Sept. 1 might be the toughest challenge of his Orioles tenure when it comes to managing the bullpen.
In the span of the past week, one of the bullpen's more dependable arms, right-hander Tommy Hunter, was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Demoted-starter Bud Norris was released. Promising sidearmer Mychal Givens was promoted, then sent back down to make room for Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia, who needs to stay in the big leagues for the remainder of this season to stick with the organization in 2016. Also, the Orioles brought up and then placed righty Mike Wright on the disabled list, and recalled lefty T.J. McFarland, who will fill several roles as a long reliever and jack of all trades.
The relievers are used to a revolving door in the bullpen, but this one is in the middle of a pennant race. And with Hunter gone, someone else is going to have to pick up those innings, whether it is Chaz Roe, Garcia, Givens or someone else from the minors.
Since becoming a full-time reliever for the Orioles in 2013, Hunter compiled a 3.05 ERA in 191 2/3 innings over 167 games. That's a lot of quality innings to lose.
"It was tough to see Tommy go. It's different. It's a little bit quieter," bullpen leader Darren O'Day said. "But he's got a great opportunity in Chicago and this is a great opportunity for these younger guys — Garcia, Givens — to kind of step up into that right-handed setup role."
The Orioles bullpen had a 2.90 ERA in the first half of the season, and has actually lowered it in the second half with a 2.47 ERA. So far in August, the bullpen has a 2.04 ERA, a drop from 2.99 in July and 2.11 in June.
But on Friday, in an 8-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, the Orioles bullpen allowed two runs on four hits on two walks in 2 1/3 innings. Brad Brach, who has been solid all season, surrendered a homer on his first pitch. Roe, who was unhittable early this season, allowed an inherited runner to score and had to pitch out of a jam. He entered Saturday having allowed 13 hits and three walks in his past 7 1/3 innings.
"He hasn't pitched lately, the last two or three outings, at the level he was so good at," Showalter said of Roe. "Hopefully, we can get that back on track. That sixth inning there, that's the spot he's been so good for us. That wasn't the case [Friday]."
Showalter also used Garcia for the first time since May on Friday, and the 22-year-old fireballer who walked nine in 15 innings during his rehabilitation assignment at Double-A Bowie, walked one and nearly hit a batter. Ultimately, he pitched a scoreless inning.
Because the Orioles want to keep Garcia for the long term — and would have to put him through waivers and/or offer him back to the Boston Red Sox if they took him off the roster — he will be in the Orioles bullpen for the rest of the season. And that means, until reinforcements arrive in September when rosters expand, Garcia will get opportunities.
"He's had some command issues even there in Bowie, but he got through it and got the first [outing] out of the way [in August], because he is going to pitch," Showalter said. "If he's here, he's gonna have to pitch in the American League."
O'Day, who also was a Rule 5 pick at the beginning of his pro career, said it's a tough spot for anyone.
"Yeah, it's a challenge because you know what the stakes are and you know you have to perform, and usually you are there [in the majors] a little bit sooner than you should be," O'Day said. "It takes away bullpen flexibility, but much of our bullpen is like that anyway."
McFarland is the only current Orioles reliever who can be sent to the minors without first passing through waivers. That roster crunch was one of the reasons the Orioles traded away Hunter and released Norris, so they could move more guys up and down if needed. But Garcia's inclusion Thursday after his rehab assignment expired complicated things.
So the bullpen flexibility is again compromised. It won't be that big of a deal, O'Day said, so long as the entire staff can do its job effectively.
"If your starters are going six and seven innings every night, bullpen flexibility doesn't matter so long as you are pitching well," O'Day said. "But if a guy lays an egg or something and your long guy doesn't pick up those three innings, you are going to need some help. … Buck's not going to blow anybody's arm out. So a short start can affect a team for quite a few days if you don't have the proper safety net in the bullpen like we do now with T.J."