The Orioles’ bullpen is fine. In Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens, Baltimore has a solid trio of late-inning hurlers. But if the team’s starting pitching is going to struggle in 2018, which you know it will, then those relievers will have to be great, and may even need a little added help.
On Monday evening, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported that the Orioles were listening to trade offers on Britton with both the Dodgers and Cubs interested. This news comes a year later than it probably should have.
Last winter, Britton had just finished one of the all-time great seasons by a relief pitcher. His value was sky high. The O’s opted to hold onto him, and he went on to have an injury plagued 2017, with a dash of random ineffectiveness thrown in. To trade him now would seem to be selling relatively low on a player that, when healthy, is still a premier talent.
A working formula
Since emerging from the bleak, extended nightmare that was the 14 consecutive losing seasons between 1997 and 2012, a hallmark of the O’s resurgence has been a steady ‘pen. Jim Johnson, Andrew Miller, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day and now Britton; the team has been fortunate to have some studs to finish up close games.
According to Fangraphs, the Orioles relief corps was the second-most valuable unit in all of baseball between 2012 and 2016. In that time, the ‘pen put together a 26.5 WAR. Only the Kansas City Royals and their 27.1 WAR were better. The O’s also got a nice 3.25 ERA from their crew in those years, which was third-best in baseball behind the Royals (3.05) and Pittsburgh Pirates (3.16).
Things didn’t go as well this past summer. The Birds fell to 19th in MLB in both categories: 2.3 WAR and a 3.93 ERA. The reasons for this dip are pretty obvious. Britton was hurt throughout the year, O’Day’s reliability has taken a dive, and the starters failed to go deep into games far too often, putting more pressure on the relievers. This was certainly part of the reason that the team’s record (75-87) was the franchise’s worst mark since 2011 (69-93).
All signs are pointing to the idea that Baltimore is “all-in” for a 2018 playoff push. You know the names at this point, but it’s worth reiterating. Britton, Brach, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette are all entering the final year of their contracts with few indicators that extensions are coming for any of them.
In order to truly contend, the Orioles will need to add a whole lot to their starting rotation. Could trading Britton bring multiple starters back to Baltimore? It’s possible, but the quality of those starters would probably be no better than what can be found at the back end of the free agent market.
Moving Britton at this point sort of seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. The bullpen has the pieces in place where it’s not too difficult to see it being a strength once again. The rotation will likely be bad no matter what. Trading away your best reliever (arguable) could leave the O’s with two mediocre units, which feels less valuable than the former.
Roll of the dice
A Major League bullpen is always sort of a crap shoot. You can throw out those same players year after year, but what worked one season probably isn’t going to work the next one. Givens seems closest to being a “sure thing” right now. He’s young-ish (27 years old) and has only continued to get better throughout his professional career. When/If Britton goes, the sidearmer will be the new closer in town.
If Showalter was tasked with putting together a relief staff right now, it’s fairly straightforward to start off. Britton, Givens, Brach and O’Day are automatics. Richard Bleier has some dubious metrics, but he’s earned a spot. After that, he has to start looking at a guy like Jimmy Yacabonis, who has struggled in the bigs but has nothing else to prove in the minors. Or Tanner Scott, whose control seems to be coming around. Donnie Hart is an option, but he may be a guy that will ride the Triple-A shuttle until he proves to be a reliable LOOGY. Where does Miguel Castro end up, ‘pen or rotation? Mike Wright should only ever relieve, but is he good enough?
There are a ton of questions and no obvious answers. Not to mention that both O’Day and Bleier are almost no doubt Opening Day players, but both carry lots of possible risks. If one of them falls apart, the rest of the bullpen will carry that burden.
Playing the market
The free agent market has a handful of big name pitchers that would be major additions to any staff. Brandon Morrow, Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Steve Cishek will be searching for closer jobs. Although they would be great in Charm City, the Orioles should be looking farther down the list for reinforcements in order to save money for starters.
As always, MLB Trade Rumors has a full list of the available free agents this winter. It’s anyone’s guess as to who the Orioles could or would target. The team’s needs are more clear.
With Britton as closer and Bleier in long relief, the O’s lack that clear, major league-ready lefty for the mid-innings. They could shoot for the stars with guys like Jake McGee or Mike Minor, but they will both want more than a one-year deal. Robbie Ross or Francisco Liriano could be willing to take a minor league deal. The sweet spot could be someone like Tony Watson or Fernando Abad.
On the right side of things, it’s always helpful to sign a couple guys in the offseason; stash one in Triple-A and have another on the fringes of the major league roster if possible. Yacabonis, Wright and Stefan Crichton don’t inspire enough confidence to leave that side of the rubber alone.
An interesting name to watch is Koji Uehara. The soon-to-be 43-year-old really enjoyed his time in Baltimore and may be interested in a reunion. He is well past his prime, but could be useful in the fifth and sixth innings. But there are plenty of other realistic candidates, including David Hernandez and Jason Motte among others.
It is a time of flux in Birdland. The team is stuck between rebuilding and competing. But their action (or inaction) at last summer’s deadline, and their inability to extend Machado has already made this decision for them. Trading Britton makes little sense. Double down, Duquette, and get this club back to the playoffs on the back of the ‘pen.