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Orioles bullpen loaded with storylines as Opening Day approaches

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Zach Britton anchors the Orioles bullpen, but plenty other talented arms will be available to help Buck Showalter’s late-inning group become elite yet again.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

This time next week, we’ll be in the midst of Major League Baseball’s regular season schedule, and it’ll be that way for six months. How’s that for something to look forward to? I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for 7:05 Orioles first pitches and eating steamed crabs while watching the best sports team in Maryland do its thing.

With that said, it’s safe to say we’d all prefer to watch winning baseball as opposed to the pre-2012 version of the Orioles. And for that to happen — with this year’s version of Buck Showalter’s “guys” — it’s going to take a heck of an effort from the arms in the bullpen.

Admittedly this isn’t exactly a revelation to any of you. However, it does enter into the discussion the undervalued pieces of any Major League Baseball team: the middle-inning heroes. Zach Britton is an elite pitcher, but the bridge guys who will set up his appearances must be sharper than ever to propel the Birds to a playoff berth in 2017.

With that said, here are three bullpen storylines to keep an eye on as the season begins.

Donnie Hart’s brilliance looks to continue

It’s easy to look at Hart’s 0.49 ERA in 18.1 innings last season and fall in love, but it’s just that number that lifts his expectations perhaps just a bit too high. That’s not to say he won’t be dominant in the 2017 season, rather we must dig a bit deeper to understand the situations in which he can max out and have his best possible outcome on each night.

We’re working with a small sample size here without much data, but we do have a basic idea of his game by looking at his minor-league background. Hart doesn’t possess swing-and-miss heavy stuff, but he does an excellent job at keeping free passes to a minimum. In 46.1 innings at Bowie last season, he walked just seven batters. Considering he’s traditionally allowed balls in play at an above average rate, that’s a start.

Hart is primarily a sinker/slider lefty who keeps balls down in the zone and induces plenty of ground balls (58.8% in ‘16). As a profile, this all sounds encouraging — especially when we see how effective he was at keeping the ball down in the strike zone last season. Here’s what he did against left-handed hitters:

Brooks Baseball - Hart
Brooks Baseball

Using that plus slider, Hart was able to dominate left-handed hitting (.132 average against).

So, why shouldn’t we expect success in 2017? Honestly, I’m not sure. I struggle to find a metric that warrants concern for Hart. He’s continued to be great this Spring and his career to be on a perfectly fine upward trajectory.

All things considered, that’s exactly why he’s a top storyline for me early this season. How good can he be? Does he add another pitch, perhaps increased changeup usage? Is he a regular go-to option for Showalter in the sixth inning? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and that’s exactly why it’s worthy of attention in April.

Mychal Givens and the fastball

By now, we all know who Givens is and what he brings on a nightly basis. He’s funky and fun. He’s tough to hit. Most importantly, he’s very unpredictable.

In a perfect world, Givens shows more consistency in 2017. To do that, he must harness the at-times elite fastball/slider combination to keep progressing. The right-handed hurler loves his heater (63% career usage), but its ability to be spotted up is what warrants watching early in April and May.

From 2015 (30 innings) to 2016 (74.2 innings), hitters went from hitting .200 against the Givens fastball to .228 — not a drastic change, but batting average points that turn Givens from top-line reliever to good-not-great territory.

Take a look at his zone profile in 2016, strictly taking a look at his fastball results:

Givens Brooks Baseball
Brooks Baseball

That’s a lot of red up in the zone, even when he’s off the plate. More than likely, that’s where his awfully low 35% ground ball rate stems from.

This isn’t to say Givens’ fastball isn’t effective, because it’s full of life and has potential to be an elite offering if controlled. In fact, in 2016 amongst relief pitchers with at-least 200 four-seam fastballs thrown, Givens ranked 19th in whiff/swing (28.38%).

It’s a good pitch, it just needs to find the lower portion of the zone much more often.

Darren O’Day’s return to healthy form

The headline speaks for itself, and it doesn’t need any graph or detailed numbers to accompany it. O’Day is 34 years old, but he clearly has good results left in his unique delivery. The bottom line here revolves around two aspects — health and control.

If O’Day is healthy the strikeouts will come, the hitters will be baffled and weak contact will be aplenty. The key is crushing down his 3.8 BB/9 number from 2016 and getting it down to the 2.1 number that emerged in the four-year span before last year’s difficulties.

The ‘pen is plenty deep this year, which means the workload can be much lesser than the 68-69 games in which he toed the rubber between 2012-2015. All in all, it’s all about consistently finding the zone and doing what O’Day does best — keeping the ball down in the zone.

For a talent like O’Day, it sometimes is that simple.

Here’s hoping the 2017 season for the entire Orioles club has a blueprint that is just as straightforward.