Absent any kind of established pecking order, and without many players with a reliable track record in their bullpen, the Orioles have already used every combination of relievers imaginable to protect and hold late leads. Whether it has worked or not depends on the night.
The benefit to this for manager Brandon Hyde is simple — there aren't really any long-term consequences, other than finding out who can do it, so why not find out?
"We're in kind of a unique spot," Hyde said. "It's a development situation. ... We don't have a ton of guys down in the ’pen who have finished games, either. To be able to finish in the big leagues is not easy, and that's how you grow and that's how you get better — it's by learning how to finish innings, being able to pitch in big spots. Being able to take the big at-bat late in the game. There's a lot of guys who are going to have that experience this year.
“We're going to grow with them and we're going to stay positive with them, and there's going to be some bumps along the way. But, I think we're going to get better long term and for this year because of it."
There's a flip-side that Hyde won't really touch yet: when the answer is that a guy can't do it, how long until the club accepts that to be true?
Most of the time, it's a matter of when the question is being asked. For example, when Paul Fry was breaking into the majors last year, he had a ton of success, but almost all of his best outings came when the game was already out of hand. He only grew into some success in higher-leverage situations later in the season, and now that he has that experience, he's been very useful with the game on the line in 2019.
He got a save Sunday in New York, pitched well again Tuesday, and held the line as the Orioles turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead Saturday night before a late home run off Miguel Castro cost them the game. He's the type of player for whom last year the answer might have been a "no" on his ability to pitch late in games. But that's not the case now, and that progression might not be a common one.
There's far more background on the likes of Castro and Mike Wright, who are in the process of tantalizing a second Orioles front office and coaching staff with their potential and frustrating them with all the ways it hasn’t been reached. Castro allowed a home run in clinching his first save in four years Tuesday in Toronto, then allowed another in clean-up duty against the Yankees during the home opener Thursday, and allowed the game-deciding three-run homer Saturday. He has electric stuff, but he still has trouble reigning him those arms and legs for a consistent delivery.
For Wright, who blew the Yankees away for a save March 30, it's been tough sledding since. He allowed both of Andrew Cashner's inherited runners to score on Opening Day in New York, and in three outings since that save has allowed nine earned runs on 10 hits (three home runs) with three walks.
There was a legitimately earnest moment on the occasion of the home opener when Wright talked about the frustration of feeling completely different and yet having a bad outing make everyone feel as if he was the same old guy. He's right, but so are the naysayers when those outings stack up.
He still has a big arm, more often than not. His cutter is a weapon when he locates it. But Hyde has used him as both the first and last player out of the bullpen, and it's hard to tell whether there's a job that fits him.
All these bullpen machinations come at the expense of finding out whether — if this team is going to be really in the mix to win games as much as they have — it might just make more sense for Mychal Givens to be the full-time closer. That would at least settle down the ninth inning, where the Orioles have given up nine runs, more than any other inning.
What's clear is that the Orioles are committed to this plan. That some of these tougher outings haven't been followed up with minor league demotions or roster moves show that, for better or worse.
"I've said it since spring — this is a great environment we have created here," Wright said. "I think we really have a family atmosphere, and if your relative does something stupid one day, you don't disown them. I kind of feel like that's where we're at right now. Hyde is doing a great job building confidence, and I think we have confidence in each other every time we go out there."
What's to come?
Even if it's the second full week of the season, this seems like a week in which roles are going to be determined to some extent. Some are smaller — is Cedric Mullins going to be the center fielder on a regular basis against right-handed pitching, or can Joey Rickard cut into his playing time? Is Rio Ruiz's dominance on the third base spot going to end, or will Hanser Alberto's time ultimately come at the expense of Richie Martin?
But mostly, what's to come is more paying attention to Chris Davis at the expense of almost everything else. He's 0-for-23 in 27 plate appearances, and dating to last season, his 0-for-44 stretch is two shy of the major league record for hitless at-bats.
It couldn't come at a worse time for the Orioles, who came home feeling good at 4-2 from their season-opening road trip against the Yankees and Blue Jays but are now facing a long losing streak in front of home fans who might have expected better. They haven't really lived up to that 4-2 mark since they got back to Camden Yards, and now Davis will continue to take the brunt of whatever frustrations come up early in the season. That's not the way to get him into a positive head space the way Hyde wants to.
Honestly, we are talking about one hit. Through games completed by 6 p.m. Sunday, 392 big leaguers had at least accomplished that this season. Is one hit really going to elude Davis for long enough that he has another ignominious record attached to his name? And if the streak keeps growing, what are the Orioles supposed to do?
What was good?
Is it weird to say the catching? Considering the duo behind the plate of Jesús Sucre, an early-February minor league free-agent signing, and Pedro Severino, a late-March waiver claim, usurped the presumed duo of Chance Sisco and Austin Wynns late in spring, it's clear that such an answer wouldn't be surprising to the Orioles themselves.
Hyde liked something in that duo, and there was more for Sisco to do in the minors, so the Sucre-Severino pairing has made an impact for the Orioles so far.
"I've been really happy with what's happened here," Hyde said. "I think our guys are catching fantastic. You saw Severino [Saturday] night, the intensity he has behind the plate. The passion he has to help out the pitcher and get guys through innings. We haven't allowed a base stealer yet all year. We back-picked again [Saturday] night in a big spot. Our guys are playing free. They're playing with energy. ... Both of those guys have done a nice job."
Playing for a former catcher like Hyde is probably good work for a major league catcher if he can get it. Hyde can tell when a pitch is executed and when it's not, so when a pitcher hangs a breaking ball and has it launched for a home run, he can see the catcher made the right call. He loves what they do for the running game, and for the pitching staff when things go well, and accepts the fact that they might not hit as much as other positions.
So even if it probably kills them to be overseeing a three-game series in which the Yankees hit 14 home runs — and their frustration at the lack of execution of pitches was evident to anyone watching the game — the Orioles at least have the defensive infrastructure in place through nine games at a position that was a total uncertainty.
At the risk of doubling up on Davis, here's a conceptual thing that wasn't very good this week, at least at face value: the Orioles' roster moves. Even though they ended up reacquiring reliever Pedro Araujo in a trade with the Chicago Cubs, designating him for assignment just to have Mark Wotherspoon eat two innings Wednesday and then outright him, too, is not especially warm and fuzzy.
No one said this was going to be easy, but this front office and the last strung Araujo on for quite a long time even when he continued to struggle. Wotherspoon got to pitch in the majors, so it's not all bad, and the Orioles needed a 25-man roster spot for Alex Cobb’s return from the injured list and didn't want to send down someone who was contributing and had options like Fry, Jimmy Yacabonis and John Means.
The Drew Jackson roster move Saturday is harder to explain. Jackson played pretty much every day in spring training, made a pretty real impact, and then started once in the first week of the season before he was designated for assignment for Dan Straily on Friday.
Straily seemed like a necessary addition (his rocky debut Sunday notwithstanding), but the Orioles as an organization really lack tools in the minors. The previous drafts improved, but it was more about overall ball-playing talent than loud skills. Jackson's speed and arm rate as legitimate tools, and for the Orioles to use a pitching shortage of their own creation as a reason not to keep a player who could be a useful piece, even at the utility level, seems like an odd execution of a plan with a popular young player in the clubhouse.
On the farm
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Thursday's start of the minor league seasons adds a legitimate level of intrigue for the 2019 Orioles, as so many of the team's exciting young players began the season there — even those who might have been expected to break spring camp with the major league team.
Hyde said there's nothing special to his routine for keeping track of the next generation of the Orioles.
"We get game reports, so I look at the game reports every morning and see how it went down in the minor league levels, and kind of follow the guys a little bit that were in big league camp," Hyde said. "Look a little more closely at our Triple-A and Double-A box scores and our game notes that Gary [Kendall] and Buck [Britton] put together down there. I follow it pretty closely."
He says his interest is in two types of guys: those who could soon be "helping here, and [have] interest in our organization.”
"Something I did in Chicago, too, where you just want to know what's happening, what's playing well," Hyde said. "It's interesting to read the managers' summaries of the games from the night before. It's something we all follow pretty closely."
Under those auspices, he'd have been glad to see 2018 first-round pick Grayson Rodriguez striking out 10 in five innings of two-hit, shutout ball Friday for Low-A Delmarva. Right-hander Gabriel Ynoa also pitched five shutout innings Friday for Triple-A Norfolk.
Additionally, after a rough start to the season for Double-A Bowie, the home run by top prospect Yusniel Diaz and the five shutout innings from left-hander Zac Lowther on Sunday will have boosted his spirits some.