The Orioles have gutted their bullpen over the past few weeks with trades of three prominent relievers. Closer Zach Britton went to the New York Yankees while setup men Darren O’Day and Brad Brach were traded to the Atlanta Braves in separate deals. Those three players led the Orioles in appearances in 2015, and were an integral part of the relief staff during this most recent stretch of positive baseball from the club. It’s a bullpen that was able to withstand the departures of players like Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop and Tommy Hunter. But now, with seemingly no continuity within the bullpen and a host of new faces down there, the reset button has been mashed down hard.
Across its five-season stretch of baseball that saw three playoff appearances, one of the hallmarks of Baltimore’s team was a strong bullpen. Along with a great defense and powerful lineup ready to rip a three-run homer, the relief staff was always top notch. It was also necessary to balance out a starting pitching staff that struggled to consistently get past five innings. That’s a pretty steady trend throughout the game these days, but the Orioles really relied on their ‘pen through this stretch. In this same five-year stretch, the O’s were consistently in the top half or even third of baseball in relief innings pitched. The Tampa Bay Rays will obviously blow everyone out of the water this season in that category with their “opener” strategy.
Relying on the bullpen that heavily is something that can be done when there is depth and quality there, and sometimes it needs to be done when the starting pitching is less than stellar. This was proven by the O’s then and is even being proven by a great team like the Yankees right now. Part of the reason they acquired Britton was to strengthen a bullpen that will be leaned on heavily down the stretch in the absence of great starting pitching.
The Orioles are trending in a newer, younger direction with their bullpen. While in the past, it was made up of perhaps failed starters like Britton, Hunter or perhaps Brian Matusz, the team now has a number of young pitchers that actually project into the bullpen. We’re even getting the earliest look at two new acquisitions in right-handers Cody Carroll and Evan Phillips. It could also be that current players that project as starters like Yefry Ramírez, David Hess and Jimmy Yacabonis end up with their future in the bullpen. No matter how it shakes out for these players, the influx of young arms is crucial to the rebuild, so long as they continue to develop in a positive way.
The larger issue in the minds of some has become who will be the “closer” for the Orioles going forward. I don’t tend to subscribe to the idea of a team (especially one which is likely to see as few wins as the Orioles are down the stretch) needing a closer. The only reason it’s of any importance is for those like myself who play fantasy baseball. Mychal Givens is the only player on the roster with a save this season following the departures of Britton, O’Day and Brach. While he seems like the defacto answer, the Orioles don’t need to define the role in the final two months. When a save situation arises, they can mix and match. They can throw in a young player like Carroll or Phillips if they choose. They can use Mike Wright Jr., Miguel Castro, Donnie Hart or Tanner Scott if they’d like. Regardless of who it is on a given night, getting experience in tight games is what’s going to breed growth and confidence for these relievers going forward.
Givens is now the veteran in a bullpen that was once chock-full of them. Like on the rest of the roster, the infusion of young players is a good thing. The Orioles can now sift these players through the next few seasons on their way to building back part of the roster that was once so strong. It’s just one portion of a roster that’s experiencing a complete overhaul, and perhaps an unnoticed one. Many are paying attention to the infield or the starting pitching, perhaps even the outfield with the many prospects there looking to break through. But the bullpen is a long game, and a project that can’t be overlooked moving forward.
Andrew Stetka blogs about the Orioles for Eutaw Street Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AStetka. 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.