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Orioles offseason positional breakdown: Overworked bullpen remains in flux after top arms struggle

Without playoff baseball filling their days, the early fall is an occasion for the Orioles to take stock of their roster and start planning how they’ll put together their 2022 team.

That doesn’t just include which players will be back and who might replace them. For a team like the Orioles, who are starting to bring some of the products from executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ promised “elite talent pipeline” up to the majors, that planning also includes forecasting when their prospects could join the major league team and start contributing.

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At some positions, prospects climbing the ladder will find an established part of their future blocking their way to the majors. Others don’t have much resistance once they arrive, and others are somewhere in between.

This month, we’ll break down how the Orioles got through 2021 at each position, which prospects are on the cusp of joining that mix and how all that will color their offseason plans.

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So, far, we’ve reviewed the catchers, first basemen, the infielders and outfielders. This week has been spent on the mound, beginning with the starting pitchers Tuesday and now the relievers.

The mainstays

Pretty early on, it became clear that little would be stable about the Orioles’ bullpen, a group that wasn’t terrible in 2020 but of which plenty would be asked in 2021. No pitcher made it the whole season in the Orioles bullpen, but three players came close in Tanner Scott, Dillon Tate and Cole Sulser.

Scott spent most of the year getting the biggest outs the Orioles required in close games and his ERA was bobbing around 3.00 in late-July when a knee issue cropped up that landed him on the injured list. He came back and had a 9.00 ERA in 14 appearances before he was shut down in mid-September with a 5.17 ERA that didn’t reflect how his season went before the injury.

Sulser spent two weeks at the alternate site in May as the Orioles dealt with a little roster crunch and spent the remainder of the season pitching like someone who wasn’t going to be optioned again. Forty-seven of Sulser’s 60 outings were scoreless, as he recorded a 2.70 ERA with a 1.121 WHIP and allowed 31% of inherited runners to score, which was below the league average.

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Orioles relief pitcher Cole Sulser, right, and catcher Pedro Severino, left, celebrate after a win over the Red Sox on Sept. 28, 2021, in Baltimore.
Orioles relief pitcher Cole Sulser, right, and catcher Pedro Severino, left, celebrate after a win over the Red Sox on Sept. 28, 2021, in Baltimore. (Nick Wass/AP)

Tate missed time with a hamstring injury in May but still finished tied with Scott for the team lead in appearances with 62. He alternated between long spells without allowing runs and stretches of outings where he couldn’t post a zero. The balance was a 4.39 ERA with a 1.241 WHIP.

Paul Fry spent most of the year as the Orioles’ best reliever, carrying a 1.78 ERA in mid-June before he lost a grip on his season. That coincided with opportunities in the closer role for the Orioles, but once he was back in a set-up job, he struggled. The Tampa Bay Rays in particular had his number. After he recorded one out in a four-run outing Aug. 29, he went to Triple-A Norfolk with a 6.08 ERA and never returned.

Tyler Wells was the last regular in the Orioles’ bullpen, though he missed time with wrist tendinitis before his season ended early because of a shoulder injury. A Rule 5 draft pick coming off Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, Wells struck out 65 in 57 innings with a 0.912 WHIP and a 4.11 ERA as a rookie. He started poorly but gained manager Brandon Hyde’s trust as the year went on, eventually ascending to the closer role.

The rest of the major league factors

Outside of those five relatively stable pieces, the Orioles’ bullpen was full of high jersey numbers and higher ERAs. Veteran right-handers Adam Plutko and César Valdez spent April and May getting big outs in big spots before the regression bug hit them hard. Neither ended the year on the 40-man roster.

Travis Lakins Sr. filled a valuable role before he injured his elbow after 24 appearances, and was outrighted off the roster after the season to clear a roster spot. Marcos Diplán, who pitched in the MLB All-Star Futures Game, pitched well over most of his 23 appearances, while minor league free-agents Conner Greene and Fernando Abad soaked up plenty of innings down the stretch.

Farther down the appearance chart, it was another lost season for Hunter Harvey. The former first-round pick injured his oblique in spring training and didn’t debut until June for the Orioles. He had a 4.15 ERA in nine appearances before he injured his lat preparing to enter a game. Harvey never returned to the majors after that.

Orioles pitcher Mike Baumann might end up as a power arm in the bullpen even if he doesn’t pan out as a starter.
Orioles pitcher Mike Baumann might end up as a power arm in the bullpen even if he doesn’t pan out as a starter. (Julio Cortez/AP)

The future

The best relievers often come up as starters, so transpose the Orioles’ top prospect list when it comes to pitchers and there’s likely to be a reliever or two who can be a fixture in their bullpen for years. Someone like Mike Baumann might end up as a power arm in the bullpen even if he doesn’t pan out as a starter, but with starters being plenty more valuable, it makes sense to keep them all on that path as long as possible.

Of the true relievers in their farm system, Isaac Mattson made a few major league appearances this year but didn’t make much of an impression. When he was down in Triple-A Norfolk, he shared some time in the bullpen with right-hander Félix Bautista, who shot from High-A Aberdeen to the Tides this year thanks to a massive fastball from his massive frame. Left-hander Nick Vespi is in the Arizona Fall League trying to make a roster case for himself as well.

The offseason outlook

If the Orioles aren’t going to spend big on major league starting pitching this winter, it stands to reason they won’t be paying market price for any reliable relievers with track records of major league success, either.

Elias seems to be a believer that when the team is better as a whole — a more consistent and more productive lineup and starters who go deeper in games — then the bullpen will get easier assignments and thus perform better. Whether than happens naturally in 2022 is hard to say.

One thing the Orioles will have to decide, however, is on the future of Scott and Fry. At the July 31 trade deadline, they were legitimate commodities, even if they weren’t valued as highly as the Orioles by other clubs. Scott’s struggles, even if they were injury related, could tamp down his market, and Fry’s collapse leaves questions there as well. Each is eligible for salary arbitration this offseason and should make north of $1 million apiece.

It’s possible the salary increase means the Orioles lower their asking prices to get more pieces for the future back, but the confluence of circumstances they’re in with those pitchers makes for a difficult decision.

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