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Should the Orioles be worried about their bullpen?

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Britton’s injury woes and a second-half dip in performance leaves some concerns about the state of the relievers.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For years now, the perennial power of the Baltimore Orioles has been their bullpen. It’s taken on many forms, but year after year, the Birds have been able to lean on a steady relief corps to carry what has usually been a sub-par starting staff. It’s been more of the same in 2017, but the relievers are beginning to show some slight cracks in the second half of the season.

For those about to rock?

It all starts and ends with the performance of Zach Britton. The closer has followed up 2016, which could be the greatest season ever by a reliever, with an injury-riddled campaign and seriously inflated numbers. It has been clear to anyone watching that the southpaw doesn’t seem quite right, whether because of injury or something else. Yet he remains on the active roster and in the closer’s role.

Last week, Britton blew a save for the first time in almost two years. Then, there was concern about a knee issue, which has apparently plagued him since 2014. He bounced back to record a save on Monday night against Seattle. However, this is the third injury scare of the season for Britton after two DL-stints, one much lengthier than the other, for forearm trouble.

The health concerns have been reflected in his statistics. His 3.55 season ERA is a huge leap from the minuscule 0.54 ERA he had a summer ago, and it even dwarfs his 3.26 career number. It’s quite simple; he’s giving up too many hits (11 H/9) and walking too many (4.6 BB/9) while striking out too few (6.8 K/9). Since the All-Star break, the hits and strikeouts have trended in the right direction, but the walks continue to pile up, leading to a 4.73 ERA in the second half.

The supporting cast

Beyond Britton, the O’s have a staff of relievers with track records and a proven ability to succeed in the bigs. They have all been more consistent and healthier than their closer this year, but many have also seen their performance dip a bit since the mid-summer break.

Brad Brach is the closer when Britton is unavailable. The righty is putting together yet another impressive season for the orange and black. However, given how great his first half of the season was, the second half has been a modest disappointment. Opponent’s slash lines have jumped from .167/.231/.288 early on to .262/.329/.426 in the latter stages, and he has a WHIP that has gone from 0.861 to 1.438.

Following up Brach, and quite possibly the Orioles’ “Closer of the Future” is Mychal Givens. His 2.2 WAR (Baseball Reference) leads the O’s relief staff. The converted shortstop seems to be the one late-inning arm that has seen his numbers improve in the second half. Sure, his ERA has jumped a tad, but everything else is better, including WHIP, opponent’s slash numbers, and strikeout-to-walk ratio). That said, his 3.54 FIP is the highest of his young career.

On the other end of the spectrum is Darren O’Day. While still certainly a fan and team favorite, O’Day has endured a tough 2017 season. His 3.99 ERA is the highest he has ever had in a season with Baltimore, and the 22 walks he has allowed are already the most in a single season of his career. But while his second half ERA of 4.19 is not ideal, his performance overall since the break has been impressive, especially in August where he has seen his season ERA drop from 4.91 to it’s current 3.99 in 13 appearances.

Donnie Hart returned to the bullpen this week, bringing with him his .275/.341/.375 second-half slash line against and 1.452 WHIP. As a side-winding southpaw, Hart could be expected to get out big left-handed hitters. But he doesn’t really do that. In fact, lefties have a chunky .385 OBP against him this season. Instead, that role has largely been shifted to the O’s late-inning righties.

Saving grace

Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier have both stepped up this season and provided the Orioles with some much needed length out of the bullpen. Their respective ERAs of 2.64 and 1.78 are extremely impressive and have people thinking about a move to the starting rotation next summer for both of them.

However, these pitchers have performed almost exclusively in low-leverage situations. Those situations are important, and having a couple of guys that can eat innings is absolutely crucial in order to allow the best pitchers to pitch in the biggest spots. However, it also means that their stats in lower pressure environments will not necessarily translate to the late innings.

Help on the way

September is right around the corner. With that, the rosters expand, of course. Buck Showalter is not one to add needless players to the clubhouse. However, he will almost surely bring in pitching reinforcements to ensure “his guys” are rested and ready down the stretch.

Just about the entire Norfolk pitching staff could have a chance to make the trip to Baltimore. But are any of them particularly intriguing? Stefan Crichton was the first call-up of the season, but struggled mightily (8.03 ERA in eight appearances). Alec Asher has had his ups and downs. Jimmy Yacabonis has been fantastic for the Tides (1.32 ERA in 41 games), but had a tough time in his first taste of the MLB (6.75 ERA in four games). And Mike Wright was just brought up recently, but everyone knows about his struggles.

Gonna be alright

In other words, one of the Norfolk guys may come up and pitch a game here and there, but the important innings are still going to come down to the familiar names. Britton needs to get right. Givens and O’Day need to continue their current success. And if Brach could return to first-half form that would be great.

On the whole, this is a solid Major League bullpen (3.75 group ERA). Britton, too, has been solid. But with the Orioles uneven starting pitching, the bullpen needs to be close to perfect if the team hopes to squeak into the playoffs. That could mean Showalter abandons dedicated roles and instead takes each game inning-by-inning. If the recent usage of Givens (back-to-back sixth-inning holds) is any indication, that could be the new way he plans to manage his ‘pen.