Daniel Clark: A closer look at the Orioles bullpen

It could be the toughness of the American League East, or it could just be the curse of the Orioles' starting pitcher. However, whatever the reason, as has been the case over the last few seasons, the Orioles have relied heavily on their bullpen arms during the first five weeks of the 2014 season.

Through 30 games, Orioles starters have pitched a combined total of 171 2/3 innings - the second-lowest amount in the majors. (The lowest is Detroit, which has played two fewer games.) This highlights the struggles experienced by the starting rotation, which combined has pitched beyond the sixth inning on just seven occasions (23 percent).

The exact causes behind this are unknown and are heavily debated within Birdland. However, one factor that could produce consistency issues is the eight off-days the Orioles have had since the season commenced 37 days ago, some of which were due to rain.

Regardless, the bullpen is being overworked and the performances thus far have been varied. Of the 10 relievers used, just four are working to healthy ERAs under 3.50, whilst the other six are experiencing some struggles - some significant.

Orioles Relievers (as of May 6)
* Brad Brach, 1 2/3 IP, 16.20 ERA, 3.00 WHIP
* Zach Britton, 19 1/3 IP, 0.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP
* Tommy Hunter, 11 2/3 IP, 2.31 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
* Brian Matusz, 10 2/3 IP, 4.22 ERA, 2.06 WHIP
* T.J. McFarland, 4 IP, 2.25 ERA, 1.75 WHIP
* Evan Meek, 11 2/3 IP, 6.94 ERA, 1.63 WHIP
* Darren O'Day, 12 IP, 0.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
* Troy Patton, 2 1/3 IP, 3.86 ERA, 1.71 WHIP
* Josh Stinson, 11 1/3 IP, 7.15 ERA, 1.94 WHIP
* Ryan Webb, 11 1/3 IP, 5.56 ERA, 1.41 WHIP

The trio of Britton, O'Day and Hunter has been superb, with the two set-up men continually holding onto leads late in games, before Hunter steps in to slam the door shut.

Britton's success has been the most pleasing, having himself struggled to find consistent success as a starter since debuting with the Orioles in 2011. His sinker has increased in velocity significantly from seasons prior and it's resulting in more groundouts than he's ever achieved before - 40 of the 57 outs he's recorded thus far have been on the ground.

O'Day's incredibly impressive start to the season continues on from successful seasons in 2012 and 2013 where he pitched to ERAs of just 2.28 and 2.18, respectively. You may not hear it from non-Orioles fans, but he is an elite reliever, consistently doing his job with minimal fuss.

Hunter had some shaky moments early in the season, but during that period, he only blew a single save, against Toronto on April 12 in a game that the Orioles still ended up winning. Since then, though, he really seems to have settled into the closing role and has now saved all six of his last opportunities.

The struggles of the other relief pitchers, though, is concerning and four of which - Brach, Stinson, McFarland and Meek - have already paid the price and found themselves at Triple-A Norfolk. McFarland, who performed solidly in his two appearances, only allowing the one run in four innings of work, was called back up Tuesday.

Webb allowed two runs in each of his first two outings, against Boston and Detroit, before allowing just one further run in his next 10 games. All appeared to be in order until a poor outing against Minnesota on Sunday that hurt the team, having just got itself back into the game. There is no doubt he has the right stuff. He just needs to produce it more consistently.

Like Britton, Matusz has found his way to the bullpen after inconsistent results as a starter and he has yet to have that much-needed breakout season. His performance in 2013 was encouraging. However, he's allowed 26 baserunners in 10 2/3 innings of relief this season and that simply isn't good enough when the Orioles need him performing in clutch situations.

Due to the 25-game suspension he was serving, Patton had a delayed start to his season and only appeared in four games for Triple-A Norfolk. Since returning to the Orioles, he allowed one run against Pittsburgh. But his last two outings have been scoreless. A proven performer since 2010, expect him to return to his best as his workload continues to rise.

Brach struggled in his two outings after being added to the roster last Friday. He gave up three runs against Minnesota on Saturday and allowed another hit in his brief appearance on Sunday. His form at Triple-A Norfolk wasn't spectacular, with an ERA of 4.85, and he was sent down on Tuesday.

To summarize, there are a still questions yet to be answered within the Orioles bullpen. Given the closeness of the American League East and the inconsistency of the starting rotation, improvement needs to occur sooner rather than later if the Orioles want to be considered a genuine threat to win the division.

Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @DC_TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O's appear here as part of MASNsports.com's continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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