Aiming for a mightier 'pen and other notes

The Orioles have certainly tried to build a better bullpen. Since the end of the 2019 season, they've added some new pitchers, and some holdovers have made changes that they hope will prove significant. Some talented young pitchers such as Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate, who is injured currently, could be with the team for most of the 2020 season.

O's pitching coach Doug Brocail presented Harvey as a closer option during a Zoom interview Sunday morning. No one is committing to the kid in that role yet, of course, but he's sure got the talent and makeup for it.

We know this - the bullpen needs massive improvement. The O's 'pen posted a 5.79 ERA to rank 15th in the American League and last in the majors last year. The year before that, their ERA ranked 14th, but it was much better at 4.78. The bullpen WHIP was 1.51 and the OPS against was .832. So yeah, big improvement is needed.

The bullpen was solid during the first spring training, and that has carried over, Brocail said Sunday.

Givens-Slings-Orange-ST-sidebar.jpg"I think the bullpen looks good," said Brocail. "Still don't know who is going to close. Don't know if it's going to be Mychal (Givens) or Harv (Harvey). Don't know if we're going to mix. If there are lefties, it could be (Richard) Bleier. The thing that I like is the work that has been put in by the younger guys. Mainly Harvey. (Miguel) Castro worked his tail off. Sent videos mostly twice a week. Made some big changes in his delivery that allows him to throw more strikes, quality strikes and attack the strike zone. Smaller misses. Primarily going to work out of load and go. You know the quicker he moves, the quicker the arm gets to slot, the less mistakes he's going to make. Velo is there. Up to 98 (mph) Saturday night.

"Guys like (Cole) Sulser and (Travis) Lakins. Sulser was with Tampa and did a very, very fine job for them. He's not just a one-inning guy. We're going to have guys capable of two, three. (Dillon) Tate looking very well. Unfortunately, the line drive off the elbow and it's about the size of my knee right now. We're going to have to give it time. If he's not ready for opening day, he gets his innings down below and we call him when we need him. That being said, we don't know if he'll be ready opening day.

"For me, those guys are in a good place and are working hard. You know, in sim games, the zeros don't mean anything to me. It's the amount of strikes they are throwing and how they are getting to their counts. How they're putting guys away. The worry for me is we're not facing the Yankees and other AL East teams and we're scrimmaging amongst ourselves and that's different."

So big tests are looming, starting on the 24th in Boston, for the O's bullpen. We could see a five-man rotation and bullpen of 11 on opening night. The rosters will be at 30 for the season's first two weeks, so a 16-man staff is probably likely. That will give the team two weeks to sort through that and find the hottest hands in the bullpen.

They surely hope for help from newcomers such as Sulser, who threw 7 1/3 scoreless last September for the Rays. And Lakins, who can touch 96 mph and pitched to a 3.86 ERA in 23 1/3 innings for the Red Sox in 2019. Right-hander Hector Velázquez could be a nice addition, and righty Isaac Mattson, acquired from the Angels in the Dylan Bundy trade, has made his way onto the 60-man player pool.

If you want a real longshot, how about 35-year-old right-hander César Valdez? Valdez, who spent the last two seasons in the Mexican League, has pitched in the majors for three teams. During the first spring this year, he threw five scoreless innings with nine strikeouts. He rolled through a quick 1-2-3 inning in the intrasquad game on Saturday night.

Brocail's comments on Castro are encouraging. He is still just 25 and if he can cut down on the walks, that stuff should be able to more consistently get big league hitters out.

Armstrong is a pitcher with some big league success before he struggled both early and late last season with the Orioles. But in parts of 2015 through 2018, he pitched to a 2.95 ERA with a 1.138 WHIP in 53 games, with a walk rate of 3.1 and a strikeout rate of 8.2 per every nine innings.

In Sarasota during the first spring training, he told me of adjustments he made with Brocail and director of pitching Chris Holt during a four-day pitching mini-camp in January.

"That is what my November consisted of with Holt and Brocail, just working on and seeing what I needed to do better," Armstrong said. "Where my mistakes were and where I was getting beat. Think we all agreed on some things and the progress we've made with mechanics and pitches and shape (of pitches) - I'm excited to go out there and see how it will go. I feel very comfortable with my delivery and my off-speed right now."

Armstrong said the coaches helped him change the shape of his cutter and curveball to play better off his fastball. He said the coaches even noticed some ways he was tipping his pitches at times last year.

So we'll see. Spring training is a time for optimism and so far, from Sarasota earlier to Baltimore now, the O's are showing they may be able to produce a better bullpen this summer.

Speaking of pitching: Brocail told us yesterday that John Means, Alex Cobb and Wade LeBlanc line up to start the three exhibition games on July 19-21. That lines them up to start the first three games of the season at Boston July 24-26. It looks like Kohl Stewart and Asher Wojciechowski are the top candidates right now to get the other two rotation spots, with others in the mix.

Adley's education: We have no indication yet that the Orioles are planning to use 2019 top pick Adley Rutschman in the majors this year. After all, he has yet to even play a full minor league season and got just 130 at-bats after the draft last season.

But he is now on the 60-man player pool and he got into his first intrasquad game, drawing two walks and grounding out once on Saturday night. He walked against Stewart and Harvey and grounded out versus Castro. He caught an inning and it went well for Bleier, who rolled through three hitters.

"Got him in the game (Saturday) night," manager Brandon Hyde said. "Was here for a day and goes into an intrasquad game and caught great. Took some good at-bats, drew a couple of walks. That groundout and he also hit a line drive kind of late (in live BP). Line drive up the middle. And really was impressive behind the plate. So yeah, I'm going to try and get him as many appearances and at-bats as I possibly can. We're going to play a lot of intrasquads until the 24th. So, love to see him get continued at-bats. If he does go to the secondary site, that doesn't mean I can't bring guys over for the intrasquad games in the evenings. I think we'll just be day-to-day with him and continue to get him experience."

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