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Can the Orioles' bullpen repeat as the division's best in 2015?

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The O's bullpen was terrific in 2014, thanks to Zach Britton's breakout season and a steady performance by Darren O'Day. Can the bullpen give the Birds an edge over their division rivals again this season?

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After dumping Jim Johnson's salary on Oakland and pulling out of a deal with Grant Balfour, the Orioles' bullpen was a question mark entering the 2014 season. Tommy Hunter was the closer on Opening Day, but eventually lost his job to converted starter Zach Britton. Between Britton's dominance, a great season from Darren O'Day, and the deadline acquisition of Andrew Miller, the bullpen became a major strength for the Birds. A repeat performance would go a long way toward giving the Orioles an edge in the A.L. East. Here's an overview of the bullpens in the division, in ascending order from worst to first.

Toronto Blue Jays
Player Season G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% FIP ERA
Brett Cecil (L) 2014 66 53.1 12.9 4.6 0.34 .344 53.8 2.34 2.70
2015 (ZIPS) 70 64.2 10.4 3.8 0.83 .318 - 3.41 3.48
Aaron Loup (L) 2014 71 68.2 7.3 3.9 0.52 .246 54.1 3.83 3.15
2015 (ZIPS) 74 74.2 7.2 2.9 0.84 .295 - 3.95 3.61
Todd Redmond (R) 2014 42 75.0 7.2 3.2 0.60 .309 32.7 3.56 3.24
2015 (ZIPS) 46 71.3 7.6 3.2 0.88 .309 - 3.86 3.91
Miguel Castro (R) 2014 - - - - - - - - -
2015 (Steamer) 45 45.0 7.3 5.1 1.06 .293 - 4.83 4.85

Toronto was an easy choice for the worst bullpen in the division. Their relievers were terrible in 2014, finishing 25th in baseball with a collective 4.09 ERA. Since then, they let closer Casey Janssen walk, and lost Marcus Stroman to a torn ACL, although he was likely going to start games this year anyway. Brett Cecil, a former Maryland Terrapin, will step into the closer role this season. He's never really been used as a traditional LOOGY (lefties actually hit him better than righties last year) so the closer role shouldn't be a massive adjustment for him. Behind him is another lefthander, Aaron Loup, who will probably be leaned on to pile up a lot of innings this year. Todd Redmond isn't bad, but has difficulty keeping the ball on the ground, which is a recipe for trouble in the A.L. East. Miguel Castro was a longshot to make the team at age 20, but he pitched very well in the spring and has reportedly made the 25-man roster.

The Jays recently optioned two relievers who were expected to make the team in Chad Jenkins and Steve Delabar, but both will likely be back at some point this year. Other bullpen arms for Toronto include rookie Matt West, old friend Preston Guilmet, and Marco Estrada, a free agent signing who was moved from Milwaukee's rotation to their bullpen during the 2014 season. He pitched far better as a reliever and could factor into their bullpen plans if he doesn't end up in their rotation.

Boston Red Sox
Player Season G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% FIP ERA
Koji Uehara (R) 2014 64 64.1 11.2 1.1 1.40 .273 32.3 3.09 2.52
2015 (ZIPS) 59 56.2 11.0 1.4 1.11 .289 - 2.83 2.54
Junichi Tazawa (R) 2014 71 63.0 9.1 2.4 0.71 .303 36.5 2.94 2.86
2015 (ZIPS) 69 68.0 9.0 2.5 0.79 .312 - 3.16 3.31
Edward Mujica (R) 2014 64 60.0 6.5 2.1 0.90 .332 43.0 3.70 3.90
2015 (ZIPS) 63 58.2 6.6 1.8 1.07 .302 - 3.88 3.99
Craig Breslow (L) 2014 60 54.1 6.1 4.6 1.33 .351 36.7 5.34 5.96
2015 (ZIPS) 59 55.0 6.6 3.9 0.98 .303 - 4.51 4.42

Koji Uehara was unbelievably good in 2013, finishing with a 1.09 ERA after taking over the closer spot halfway through the season. He was putting up similar numbers in 2014 but started to fall apart down the stretch - his ERA increased every month of the season and he was flat-out awful in August and September. Koji will be 40 years old in about a week, and he's currently dealing with a hamstring injury. The projections are optimistic about him, but there are some serious reasons to question how effective he can be going forward.

Tazawa is a good 28-year old reliever who could end up in the closer spot if Uehara struggles. Mujica was a disappointment in 2014 after being signed from St. Louis. Part of that was BABIP luck (.332), but he's always been homer-prone (his HR/9 was actually below his career average last season) and is on the wrong side of 30. Craig Breslow is simply the least terrible left-handed reliever that the Red Sox have, which says more about Boston than it does about Breslow. Other bullpen options for Boston include two Texas Rangers castoffs in Alexi Ogando and southpaw Robbie Ross, as well as spot starter / long reliever Brandon Workman.

Tampa Bay Rays
Player Season G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% FIP ERA
Jake McGee (L) 2014 73 71.1 11.3 2.0 0.25 .280 38.0 1.73 1.89
2015 (ZIPS) 71 63.2 11.4 2.4 0.71 .299 - 2.46 2.40
Brad Boxberger (R) 2014 63 64.2 14.5 2.8 1.25 .227 41.2 2.84 2.37
2015 (ZIPS) 65 74.2 12.4 3.9 0.96 .295 - 3.21 2.77
Grant Balfour (R) 2014 65 62.1 8.2 5.9 0.43 .274 43.8 3.95 4.91
2015 (ZIPS) 60 56.7 9.2 4.4 0.79 .287 - 3.77 3.49
Kevin Jepsen (R) 2014 (LAA) 74 65.0 10.4 3.2 0.55 .263 47.8 2.78 2.63
2015 (ZIPS) 64 55.2 9.4 3.6 0.81 .298 - 3.51 3.39

McGee had a subpar 2013 season but rewarded the Rays in 2014 for their faith in him, serving as the closer for the latter part of the year and posting a sub-2 ERA. He was aided by an awfully low home run rate - he allows a below average GB/FB ratio, but only two fly balls against him actually went over the fence. That probably won't happen again, but even if he gives up a few more bombs he's still very good. The problem is his health - he'll miss some or all of April with an elbow injury. Boxberger will fill in for McGee and is another guy who's probably in the "very good but also a little lucky" camp - he had a ridiculous 14.5 K/9 but also allowed a .227 BABIP last year.

The Orioles turned out to be right about Grant Balfour - he struggled his command and quickly lost his spot as the closer in 2014. ZIPS projections have him improving this year but I'm honestly not sure why - his 4.91 FIP shows that his sub-4 ERA might have masked an even worse performance in 2014 thanks to some batted ball luck. He's also 37 years old, not exactly a guy you would expect to make a big step forward in 2015.

Jepsen had a breakout age-30 season for the Angels last year, and the Rays signed him to a $3 million contract hoping that wasn't a fluke. The Rays will also use the 27-year-old Kirby Yates, who wasn't bad in his first full season, along with long reliever Nate Karns, who may start the season in the Rays' rotation thanks to all of their injuries. They also picked up Ernesto Frieri, the former Angels closer who was atrocious for L.A. and Pittsburgh last year before eventually being sent to the minors.

Baltimore Orioles
Player Season G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% FIP ERA
Zach Britton (L) 2014 71 76.1 7.3 2.7 0.47 .215 75.3 3.13 1.65
2015 (ZIPS) 71 72.1 7.6 3.2 0.75 .282 - 3.69 3.24
Darren O'Day (R) 2014 68 68.2 9.6 2.5 0.79 .218 44.6 3.32 1.70
2015 (ZIPS) 64 60.2 9.3 2.4 1.04 .280 - 3.64 2.97
Tommy Hunter (R) 2014 60 60.2 6.7 1.8 0.59 .285 50.8 3.15 2.97
2015 (ZIPS) 64 71.7 7.3 1.8 1.00 .287 - 3.63 3.39
Wesley Wright (L) 2014 58 48.1 6.9 3.5 0.37 .309 52.1 3.44 3.17
2015 (ZIPS) 65 50.7 8.0 3.2 0.89 .305 - 3.88 3.73

It will be tough for the O's to duplicate last season's bullpen success. Not only is Andrew Miller gone, but Britton and O'Day had career years in 2014 that will be difficult to repeat, and pretty much any set of projections you can find will have both of them taking steps backward this year. While it's reasonable to expect some regression, those projections don't tell the whole story.

Britton's BABIP against last year was .215, which is remarkably low, but his sinker also induces ground balls at a an unbelievable rate - 75.3% last year, which led runner-up Dallas Keuchel by over 11%. That kind of extreme ground ball pitcher isn't likely to have a "normal" BABIP, especially with the O's defense behind him. Meanwhile, the highest BABIP O'Day has ever allowed over six full seasons is .252, which indicates that his strange delivery probably helps him prevent solid contact. Problem is, the computers don't know what his delivery looks like, so he's projected to bounce up into the standard .280-.290 range in 2015 despite the fact that he's never been even close to that. Both Britton and O'Day seem like classic cases where the computer projections just see "luck" in a low BABIP and don't fully account for the talents of a unique player.

Tommy Hunter ended up having a good season in 2014 after his early struggles lost him the closer's job, and he has become a reliable 6th-7th inning guy. I chose to include Wright as the lefty who will log the most innings, mainly because Brian Matusz has been shopped so openly this spring. Wright is no Miller, but he's a decent left-handed bullpen arm. If he struggles, Matusz may still be around, or T.J. McFarland could start appearing in some higher-leverage situations. Brad Brach will probably make the team too - his ability to toss 2-3 quality innings really helped the Orioles out at times in 2014. We tend to forget about Ryan Webb, but he's only a year removed from a very good 80+ inning season in Miami that earned him his 2-year contract with the Orioles. We may see Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia sneak onto the roster as well.

Baltimore probably has the deepest bullpen in the division from top to bottom. Not only that, it's full of ground ball pitchers who compliment the Orioles' infield defense and give them the chance to make plays.

New York Yankees
Player Season G IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP GB% FIP ERA
Dellin Betances (R) 2014 70 90.0 13.5 2.4 0.40 .241 46.6 1.64 1.40
2015 (ZIPS) 66 82.2 12.6 3.6 0.65 .307 - 2.61 2.39
Andrew Miller (L) 2014 73 62.1 14.9 2.5 0.43 .263 46.9 1.51 2.02
2015 (ZIPS) 58 48.2 14.0 3.9 0.92 .313 - 2.89 2.59
Justin Wilson (L) 2014 70 60.0 9.2 4.5 0.60 .285 51.3 3.62 4.20
2015 (ZIPS) 69 64.2 9.5 5.2 1.11 .300 - 4.54 4.31
David Carpenter (R) 2014 (ATL) 65 61.0 9.9 2.4 0.74 .333 37.6 2.94 3.54
2015 (ZIPS) 63 66.3 9.5 2.7 0.74 .312 - 3.63 3.67

As much as I hated putting New York in this spot, I couldn't find a way not to. Dellin Betances was one of the best handful of relievers in baseball last season, and they added another pitcher from that elite group in Andrew Miller. Having an top-flight righty and lefty in the bullpen allow them to do things with matchups in late-game situations that other teams simply can't do. They both strike out a ton of hitters, and are capable of going multiple innings. It's entirely possible that the two of them could combine for 150 innings and over 200 strikeouts, and that is completely insane.

Behind them, David Carpenter and Justin Wilson were acquired in trades with the Braves and Pirates, and both of them averaged over a strikeout per inning last season. Wilson's 2014 numbers don't look all that impressive, but he was excellent in 2013 (2.08 ERA in 73 IP). Esmil Rogers, Chase Whitley, and Bryan Mitchell are all long reliever / spot starter types and could pitch out of the 'pen throughout the year. Adam Warren has seemingly made the rotation, but he could end up back in long relief too.

Just like the Orioles' bullpen plays to the team's strengths by inducing ground balls, the Yankees' bullpen is built for New York. The best way to keep the ball from leaving their bandbox of a stadium is to keep it from touching the bat, and this bullpen was built to strike hitters out. While the Orioles may have the Yankees beat in quantity of reliable relievers, the Yankees have two of the best in the game, and they've pieced together a decent cast behind them. The Evil Empire gets my nod for the best bullpen in the American League East.