TORONTO — With right-hander Darren O’Day activated from the disabled list Saturday and closer Zach Britton likely to return early in the week, the Orioles bullpen will finally be at full strength for the first time this season.
The return of two of the team’s top late-inning relievers won’t be enough to save the Orioles’ season. With the team 25 games below .500 and entering Saturday buried 23½ games out of first place, the front office is beginning to look beyond 2018.
And the Orioles could potentially move their top three veteran relievers — pending free agents Britton and Brad Brach, and possibly O’Day, who is in the third season of a four-year deal — to begin building for the future.
So while the bullpen will be whole again this week, it also begins a nearly two-month showcase in advance of the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.
“Unfortunately, it seems like it’s more of an inevitable thing,” Brach said Thursday. “And it’s not something we can control, but I think it’s something where we sit there and think about it that since 2014, it’s been me, Zach and Darren in the bullpen. We’ve seen a lot of guys come and go, and it could be the end of us being on the same team together. It’s just one of those things that we want to cherish. I don’t know if that’s the right word or not, but just cherish the times we’ll have together coming up because we might not be in the same uniform for much longer.”
Having served as the foundation of good Orioles teams since 2012, the bullpen this year has been pedestrian statistically. It entered Saturday ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams in ERA (4.33) and 28th in WHIP (1.47), though some of that can be attributed to the team’s struggles in middle relief while back-filling for injuries.
But more than anything else, the relief corps hasn’t had many leads to protect. The team entered Saturday tied for 28th in save opportunities (20) and having converted just 13 saves, tied for second fewest in the majors. The bullpen has spent most of the season trying to keep games close, and that’s meant more multi-inning outings for relievers such as Mychal Givens and Richard Bleier.
“The whole idea was to try to hold the fort down until we were able to get it at full strength this year, but sometimes that never happens and there’s a hole in the dike, so to speak,” manager Buck Showalter said. “I’m excited to get one of the best relief pitchers in the game — really two of them — back. …The way we’ve been able to spread the load around over the years, and have been able to this year, but we’ve had different personnel, hopefully things will settle in down there, because I still think our pitching staff — if we get everybody today — will be a strength.”
Left-hander Tanner Scott was earning more high-leverage opportunities before being optioned to make room for O’Day on Saturday. Miguel Castro continues to give the team valuable multi-inning outings in the middle frames.
“You like to think the guys we’ve had down there have done a pretty good job in our absence,” O’Day said. “It’s been fun watching some of the younger guys put in some tough situations and succeed, so it will be exciting to have us all back together and hopefully we’ll be able to shorten some games like we have in the past, and there will be some wins for us.”
The return of Britton and O’Day will allow Showalter to slot relievers such as Givens and Bleier — – who have both been used in a variety of roles over the years — back into the sixth and seventh innings, at least while the bullpen is at full strength. While the rotation is starting to find its footing — starters had a 4.39 ERA since May 11, compared with a 5.84 ERA before that date — the formula can theoretically put the Orioles in more winning situations, provided the long-slumping offense can produce more runs.
“I think it will give Buck maybe a little more leeway in terms of maybe not pushing a starter a little deeper in the game,” Bleier said. “We’re not going to have to pitch extended outings as much. I’ll probably slide back — I don’t think I’m going to pitch in the eighth inning when they’re all there. So it’s definitely going to be a situation where the game will be over after the sixth inning if we’re winning theoretically.”
It also allows Brach, who has manned the closer role for the majority of the past two seasons with Britton injured, to move back into the setup role, where he became an All-Star in 2016. Brach has converted 10 of 12 save chances this season, but he’s allowed at least one base runner in each save opportunity and blew a three-run, ninth-inning lead Thursday in Toronto.
“The beauty of it in the past has been that if somebody needed a day or two, our drop-off and level of experience wasn’t anything,” Showalter said. “We’ve had to thrust some people into roles they’re not accustomed to — not that they aren’t capable of it. So I think there will be a comfort level there, especially [if] they come back and pitch well. I would expect them to have some hiccups along the way.”
Britton hasn’t pitched this season, and O’Day hasn’t pitched since May 4, so ideally Showalter would like to gradually move the two into their traditional late-inning roles.
“You would like to,” Showalter said. “The opposition doesn’t always cooperate, but I’d like to start it that way. I’m hoping we have a lot of winning opportunities when they get here, but I’ll look to try to create some opportunities to let them get their feet wet first. If they’re active, they’re available to pitch, and we’ll use them accordingly.”
Contending teams can always use relief help. The Orioles nearly dealt Britton at last year’s trade deadline before a deal with the Houston Astros fell through. While shortstop Manny Machado will be the center of trade talks involving the Orioles, late-inning relievers can provide great hauls to help further a rebuild. The New York Yankees set their future up with deadline deals of Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller at the 2016 trade deadline, netting top prospects Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield as well as other pieces as part of two four-for-one trades. Chapman was a pending free agent like Brach and Britton, and Miller had three years left on his deal.
Whether the Orioles are able to net that kind of return remains to be seen, but Bleier said the realization is there that the bullpen’s top veteran leaders could be gone.
“You have Britton and Darren and Brad, three guys with lots of experience who all could potentially not be here,” Bleier said. “They have a lot of value to the team and to the young pitchers as well. I know Zach’s been a big help with Tanner, and Darren’s helped Givens a lot, too. So I think there’s a lot of value other than their good pitching. It would definitely be a tough loss.”
Brach said the relievers realize they could be approaching the end of their time together.
“I’d love to see us all perform at our highest ability here and us all go out on a high note. If you look at it that way, you can probably shorten it into a four- or five-inning game,” Brach said. “Like we used to have, you can have guys slide back or slide forward. I think we really have a chance to do something special in the next couple weeks. Who knows, maybe it lasts longer. You never really know, but just whenever the opportunity comes, you pitch your best and hopefully we can show what we can really do.”