The Orioles are in the midst of a transformation that will affect every aspect of the organization. Veteran players have been traded away, the front office has been gutted and the coaching staff remains in transition. These changes will be evident everywhere you turn at Camden Yards this coming season, including in a bullpen that saw three familiar faces dealt last July.
Zach Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach were a dynamite relief trio for more than four seasons. Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter often deployed them for an inning apiece to close out games throughout the club’s recent run of brilliance, and yet, within a span of six days this past summer they were all gone.
Their departure left a gaping hole in the O’s relief corps that remains not entirely filled. On a team as bad as the 2018 Orioles were, it didn’t really matter. There were very few leads to protect and the pitching staff quickly became a carousel of young pitchers getting their first taste of big league action. That may not change much in 2019, but there are plenty of intriguing hurlers to keep fans excited.
Mychal Givens may be the one player on the Orioles roster that just about any other team in baseball would like to have. The hard-throwing 28-year-old right-hander was solid in 2018, but not nearly as impressive as many expected him to be. Givens managed to keep the ball in the park (0.47 HR/FB and 5 percent HR/FB) but struck out hitters at the lowest rate of his career (9.27 K/9) and walked a few too many (3.52 BB/9). Even still, the former shortstop has three full seasons of team control remaining, and a solid showing to open the 2019 season will vault him right back to being one of the hottest relief names on the trade market.
Givens has the right combination of age, experience, stuff and talent to spearhead the Baltimore bullpen. He’s likely to earn the lion’s share of save opportunities in addition to any other crucial situations that may pop up prior to the ninth inning. The Orioles will need him to excel in such a role for two reasons: protecting younger players and increasing his own trade value. A potential deal involving Givens this summer could return quite a haul, depending on how he performs.
Richard Bleier is a 31-year-old, soft-tossing lefty that now owns a career 1.97 ERA over 119 MLB innings, and it’s unlikely that many people outside of Baltimore are even aware of his existence. His season-ending injury in June left a noticeable void in the pitching staff.
The southpaw’s career 4.08 K/9 rate and 4.16 xFIP is probably enough to keep most teams away for fear of the Bleier bubble bursting. That doesn’t mean the O’s can’t take advantage of the voodoo he uses to trick hitters for now. He’s shown the last two season’s that he’s comfortable going multiple innings or serving as an unconventional late-inning arm. Flexibility in a reliever is always a welcome feature.
The Orioles may have something very special in Tanner Scott. When he was a prospect, the lefty’s big fastball turned heads, but it was his slider that frustrated opposing hitters in 2018. They batted just .155 with a .252 slugging percentage and a massive 55 percent whiff rate against the offering. It was legitimately one of the nastiest pitches in the sport.
However, his struggles with control continued (4.73 BB/9) and his fastball got crushed (.594 slugging). It all resulted in an elevated .380 batting average against on balls in play and a 5.40 ERA despite a 2.96 xFIP. As a reliever, Scott doesn’t necessarily need to add any more pitches to his arsenal, but the fastball has to be a weapon, especially since it can touch triple digits. His continued development may be priority number one for the Orioles next pitching coach. With minor tweaks, it’s easy to see Scott becoming the next Josh Hader or Andrew Miller.
The story of Branden Kline is well known by this point. Recurring injuries had thwarted the 2012 second round pick’s efforts to climb the baseball ladder. He hadn’t thrown an inning of professional baseball in two full seasons heading in 2018. A breakout season that saw him toss 65.2 innings, compile a 1.64 ERA and strike out 71 hitters between Frederick and Bowie changed the game. Just last week he was named to the Orioles 40-man roster, and now he finds himself on the doorstep to Baltimore.
Despite his recent success, the O’s may still prefer to see him perform for longer with the Baysox or perhaps even have a run in triple-A. So, a big league debut is not imminent, but it is expected before the end of 2019. It’s not too difficult to see him working his way into the conversation as one of the club’s go-to arms in the near future.
Filling in the gaps
Miguel Castro is the only other known commodity among the current crop of candidates for the Orioles bullpen next season. But even he has question marks given his frustratingly low strikeout rate (5.94 K/9 in ‘18) and his worrisome walk rate (5.21 BB/9). At the same time, he will only be 24 years old on Opening Day, and there could still be untapped potential that may be revealed at any moment.
Givens, Bleier, Scott and Castro are assured big league roster spots. The remaining three or four openings are up in the air. Is Pedro Araujo worth the temporary inconvenience? Probably. Paul Fry was quite good (3.35 ERA, 36 strikeouts, 37.2 innings), but has reverse splits and has never shown an ability to get out fellow lefties. Is it time to cut bait on Mike Wright Jr? Can Cody Carroll be productive in the big leagues? Will anyone emerge from the David Hess/Ryan Meisinger/Evan Phillips/Jimmy Yacabonis chunk of hurlers?
There’s a good chance that the entirety of the 2019 season ends up feeling like one big, extended Spring Training. Unfamiliar faces are sure to get loads of playing time, and some of them are going to struggle. It’s all part of the (sorry to be cliche) “process.”