Yesterday, our fearless leader Mark Brown wrote about how there are still some things to be excited about during the dumpster fire that has been the last month or so of the Orioles' season. Today, I wanted to take a closer look at one of them: the bullpen.
The 'pen has been one of the lone successes of the 2015 season. While everyone expected the bullpen to be near the top of the league, and I predicted they'd be the 2nd best in the division, it has outperformed even those expectations. The bullpen is fifth in baseball in ERA, and they're doing it while throwing a lot of innings behind a below average starting rotation. Zach Britton and Darren O'Day have repeated their excellent performances from 2014, and they've been supported by career years from Brian Matusz and Brad Brach. When pitchers that were expected to important parts of the bullpen succumbed to either injury (Wesley Wright) or ineffectiveness (Tommy Hunter), the bullpen was stabilized by effective performances from former unknowns like Chaz Roe and Mychal Givens.
Unfortunately, the O's will probably be losing at least one of their key bullpen contributors from this year. Darren O'Day is a free agent, and with the amount of money the team will need to spend to improve elsewhere there is definitely a question of if he'll return. And Brian Matusz will be entering his fourth year of arbitration, which means his price will reach a point that the Orioles might not be willing to meet. He's making around $3 million now and that number should go up. With only one year of real success under his belt, it may not be worth it to pay $4-5 million for an unspectacular LOOGY.
Barring an implosion in September, O'Day will be coming off his fourth straight season with an ERA under 2.30, and his second straight with an ERA under 2. He is awesome. While I don't see an Andrew Miller contract in his future, O'Day is going to get paid. Giving big contracts to relievers is rarely worth it due to reliever volatility and the fact that they simply don't pitch that many innings - I don't think the Orioles will be the team to make that mistake this time. Matusz, meanwhile, is having by far the best season of his career, which could mean a huge raise via arbitration.
Assuming neither O'Day nor Matusz return, the O's are left with Britton, Brach, and Mychal Givens as the three guys who are basically locks to start the 2016 season in the bullpen. Givens has shown flashes of being really, really good, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him slide right into O'Day's role as the 8th inning man next season. Brach has been great lately as well, and I think the role he's in right now suits him the best - a 6th or 7th inning guy who can sometimes throw an extra inning or two if needed.
Chaz Roe will be back, and he'll be cheap - anyone who can throw a slider this GIF-worthy probably has the stuff to stick around in the bigs. Roe can essentially replace Tommy Hunter as the 3rd right handed arm behind Givens and Brach. T.J. McFarland isn't going anywhere, either, especially with the team potentially losing a lefty in Brian Matusz. He's due for an arbitration raise, but he should still be on the cheap side.
That leaves two more spots. One will most likely go to a lefty. That might be Matusz or it might be a new face - a cheaper version of Matusz signed via free agency, along the lines of the Wesley Wright deal this year (but hopefully with a little more success). It's also possible that the O's might think they already have that guy in someone like Cesar Cabral or Chris Jones.
The last spot is interesting. My prediction is a bit of a wild card: Dylan Bundy. It's easy to forget about Bundy these days thanks to all of his injury issues, and it's also easy to forget that he is out of options since he's made a grand total of two major league appearances. But he is, so he must be placed on the 25-man roster for 2016 if the O's want to retain him. This is a tough spot - it's highly unlikely he'll be good enough to pitch in the rotation come April, but he can't be sent to the minors. If this sounds familiar, it's because the O's faced the same dilemma with Zach Britton. We all know how that went.
If I was a betting man (I actually am, but I don't know how to bet on this), I'd bet that Bundy starts the year as an unknown commodity in the major league bullpen just like Britton did in 2014. This year Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette have shown how committed they can be to keeping a future asset on the 25-man roster when they have to, even if he may not be major league ready. If they'd do it with Jason Garcia, why wouldn't they do it with Bundy? The can also try to hide him on the DL, but that will only work for so long. The reality is they're not going to let Bundy go for free, so at some point he'll need to pitch at the major league level in 2016. Might as well get it over with.
Speaking of Jason Garcia, he's actually looked pretty good since his return from the DL, but he's also available to be optioned once he's gotten through this season. I'm guessing he'll start the year in Norfolk and be one of the first call-ups when an extra bullpen arm is needed.
Potentially losing O'Day and Matusz is certainly going to hurt the Baltimore bullpen next season. But a bullpen of Britton, Givens, Brach, Roe, MacFarland, Matusz or (insert lefty here), and Bundy could still be one of the better groups in the league. Let's just hope that unlike in 2015, next year's bullpen isn't one of the only things worth getting excited about.