In an Orioles bullpen that has faced plenty of turnover one month into the 2019 campaign, Sunday marked perhaps a record day of change.
Along with flipping Austin Wynns for Jesús Sucre at catcher and placing starter Alex Cobb on the injured list for the third time, the Orioles made moves involving four relief pitchers, seeking a salve for a bullpen worn down by heavy usage and continued abuse from opposing batters.
A day after allowing three home runs in two innings, Jimmy Yacabonis was optioned as right-handers Branden Kline and Luis Ortiz joined the major league bullpen. While Kline pitched a scoreless inning of relief in Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Twins, Ortiz did not pitch and was optioned after the game. The latter move was presumably to clear a roster spot for right-hander Shawn Armstrong. The team announced during the game that it had acquired Armstrong via waiver claim from the Seattle Mariners.
Excluding Ortiz and the three position players manager Brandon Hyde has sent to the mound in blowout defeats, the Orioles have deployed 18 relief pitchers this season, the most of any team in baseball.
"I think that's a little bit where we're at,” Hyde said. “We're in this process that we're in, we're giving guys opportunity at the big league level and probably gonna be some movement ... but I would love to have some guys establish themselves and be able to pitch in tight games and want the ball and be bulldogs out of the bullpen. I'd love to see that. I'm waiting for some guys to step up and fill that role."
No Orioles pitcher with at least five relief appearances has an ERA lower than 3.60, while the team’s relief corps for the season has a 6.68 ERA, the highest in baseball. Orioles relievers have allowed 34 home runs, 15 more than any other bullpen and as many or more than 14 teams’ whole staffs.
The Orioles have optioned four pitchers this season, including Yacabonis, Ortiz and Kline, while designating four others for assignment. They have retained all but one in the system, trading right-hander Mike Wright to Seattle. Wright was added to the Mariners’ roster shortly after they designated Armstrong, who posted a 14.73 ERA in 3 2/3 innings for them.
The players are aware of the turnover. Kline, in particular, was called up for his major league debut as the 26th man in an April 20 doubleheader with the Twins, then sent down after pitching two innings in the late game. Because one of the Orioles’ roster moves Sunday involved the IL, Kline was able to rejoin the 25-man roster within 10 days of being optioned.
“With this organization, there's obviously a ton of opportunity,” Kline said. “All we can really do is continue to work every day, show up and try to get better in some capacity and wait for that phone call. Fortunately, it came a little earlier, but I'm not up here to be happy and put a smile on my face. I'm here to compete, and I'm here to show that I can stick around."
Performance has dictated the Orioles’ decisions of who stays and who goes more often than not, though freshness provides a factor, as well. Yacabonis carried a 2.92 ERA into an April 20 appearance against Minnesota, but he has since allowed seven runs in 3 1/3 innings, ballooning his ERA to 6.32. He threw 44 pitches Saturday, his most since March 30.
“With a lot of the guys in our bullpen, it's being able to be efficient and be able to execute pitches and understand that you cannot fall behind and that you cannot pitch in the middle of the plate at this level and you have to be able to locate,” Hyde said. “Our guys are very young in their careers, a lot of 'em, and are still learning to execute against good lineups.”
Another issue in the wear on the relievers is a lack of length out of starting pitchers. Through 29 games, the Orioles have gotten only four starts of at least six innings, tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the fewest in baseball. In all, the Orioles rank 26th with 131 1/3 innings pitched by their starters, though three of the four teams behind them have played fewer games and are averaging more than Baltimore’s 4.53 innings per start.
As a result, the bullpen’s 122 2/3 innings are the second most in baseball, and relievers get tasked with extended outings. They might just be off the roster by the next day.
“Sometimes, there's moves that have to happen that sometimes you don't want them to happen, but it's necessary to get through the game,” Hyde said. “I think that's just kind of where we're at right now, is we don't have a ton of length in our bullpen, a lot of long relief guys, and our starters haven't pitched very deep into games, so we have a lot of innings to cover. Sometimes, I'm leaving guys in there a little longer than I want to because we're trying to get through it, and that's just the way our roster is made up right now. I'd love to see some guys step up, get some outs. I'd love to see some starters go a little deeper to not have so much shuffling going on."
What’s to come?
It’s a repeat of last week, with a series against the Chicago White Sox following a sweep by the Twins. These matchups come away from Camden Yards.
The Orioles took two of three from Chicago for their first home series win of 2019. They’ll deploy the same three starters in this series, though in a different order.
Left-hander John Means, with a rotation spot finally locked up, starts Monday. Tuesday, right-hander Andrew Cashner will make a second straight start against a White Sox team he held to one run in seven innings, this season’s longest start by an Oriole. David Hess’ move to the bullpen was the very definition of temporary, with the right-hander warming up to enter in relief but never actually doing so before rejoining the rotation Wednesday in place of the again-injured Cobb.
What was good?
This category applies in two ways to Trey Mancini. He, of course, was good, continuing his tremendous start to this season by hitting .421 this week.
The news that came after he left Saturday’s game with an apparent hand injury was, all things considered, good, as well. It was a bruised right index finger for Mancini, who took a fastball from José Berrios off the digit and stayed in the game to single two pitches later before exiting. Although Mancini and Hyde initially feared the finger could be broken, X-rays came back negative, and Mancini hopes to return sometime during the Chicago series.
Out of the lineup for the first time Sunday, Mancini is pacing the Orioles in most offensive categories while also standing among American League leaders. Mancini is first in the league in hits and ranks second in runs (23), third in batting average (.355), third in doubles (11) and fifth in slugging percentage (.618).
A long-term injury would’ve been devastating not only for the Orioles but also Mancini, who very well could heading toward his first All-Star appearance.
Without Mancini, the Orioles mustered one run via a solo shot by Chris Davis in Sunday’s sweep-delivering loss. It marked the fourth game of the week the Orioles scored two or fewer runs, all of them losses. Their 10 games scoring fewer than three runs rank one behind the Oakland Athletics for most in the AL.
With all the attention on Baltimore’s pitching staff and its affinity for serving up home runs, the Orioles offense didn’t click often this week, either. Although the Orioles produced a nine-run outburst Tuesday against Chicago, they scored 10 runs in their other five games combined. That includes only four in the Minnesota sweep; more Twins drove themselves in with home runs in each of their Friday and Saturday victories.
"We've gotta bounce back,” Davis said. “We don't have any other choice. Unless we want the season to go on and have a repeat of last year, we've gotta do something to figure it out, and do so quickly. It's not one man's problem. Every guy in here's accountable and every guy knows it. They've gotta do something to help us get better."
On the farm
Since being acquired in last season’s Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Orioles top prospect Yusniel Díaz has had difficulties matching the amount of success he enjoyed in the Dodgers’ system.
Doing so got more difficult this week, as the outfielder was placed on the seven-day injured list with Double-A Bowie on Friday.
In 59 games with the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate last season before the trade, Diaz was slashing .314/.428/.477 with more walks than strikeouts. In 58 games with Bowie between the last two seasons, Diaz has slashed .234/.323/.380 and has 41 strikeouts to 27 walks.
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Even as other fruits of the Machado trade in reliever Zach Pop and infielder Rylan Bannon perform well for Bowie, Diaz remains the jewel of the deal, and getting him to perform well soon after returning to health would be most ideal.