The Orioles went into the offseason showing more of a willingness to part with a bullpen piece in order to satisfy other roster needs, dealing from a strength while running the risk of weakening a unit that’s needed to prop up a shaky rotation. They listened to offers for closer Zach Britton and setup man Brad Brach. They turned a clogged ear to overtures for Mychal Givens, but otherwise were open to making a move that impacted the back end.
Britton ruptured his Achilles tendon while running sprints and Brach came off the market. The Orioles couldn’t lose both of them while vowing to stay “competitive” - the word that makes some fans retch.
Darren O’Day wasn’t subjected to the trade rumors, perhaps due to age (35), a contract that pays him $18 million over the next two seasons and a couple of health issues since he re-signed with the Orioles that impacted his production. Hamstring and rotator/shoulder injuries forced him on the disabled list. But O’Day ended the 2017 season on a nice roll that tended to get overlooked because the club lost 19 of its last 23 games and finished in the cellar while refusing to be sellers.
The Orioles rewarded O’Day with a four-year, $31 million deal after he registered ERAs of 1.70 and 1.52 and WHIPs of 0.888 and 0.934 in the two previous seasons, earning his first All-Star selection along the way. He had a 3.77 ERA and 1.226 WHIP in only 34 games in 2016 and a 3.43 ERA and 1.077 WHIP in 64 appearances last summer, with a career-high 24 walks and eight home runs.
Here’s the part that may have gone unnoticed by casual observers or the disgruntled. O’Day allowed two runs and seven hits with 16 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings in August and only one run and six hits with 13 strikeouts over nine innings in September.
“I feel great,” he said Saturday afternoon at FanFest. “Last year was encouraging in a lot of aspects. I think previous seasons I had some issues that just fighting through and there’s times where you doubt yourself, there’s times where you wonder if you’re still good, so last year some of the months were very encouraging for me and I felt like I got back to myself.”
O’Day kept teams scoreless in 13 of his last 14 appearances, the only hiccup being the solo home run by the Indians’ Francisco Lindor on Sept. 9. He shut out opponents in 18 of his final 20 outings.
“The problem with being a relief pitcher is that the sample size, if you have a tough few outings at the beginning of the season, which I did for various reasons, it really sets you back,” O’Day said. “So if you dig into what I did last year, it was personally a year I’m proud of for how I came back and contributed to the team and helped other guys around me anyway I could.
“I feel good going into the season. I feel strong. I’ve got two-times dad strength now. I’ve got two kids. I’ve got a beard. So I like where I’m at.”
The beard won’t last, of course. It’s in violation of the club’s facial hair policy, which has become much more lenient over the years.
How long will he keep it?
“Until the very last second I have to shave it,” he replied. “It keeps my face warm. We’ve had a cold winter. My daughter likes it. So I think I’m good now.”
O’Day has recorded 19 saves over parts of 10 major league seasons, 17 coming with the Orioles. He could close this year while Britton remains on the disabled list, though Brach figures to get first crack at the job.
Givens appears to be the longer-term answer and his education as ninth-inning specialist could begin later this year. It depends on the availability of his teammates on certain nights and how long Britton stays on the shelf.
“I think Zach might be back here sooner rather than later,” said manager Buck Showalter. “We’re always going to paint the worst-case scenario, between us. He’s coming along well.”