Everyone reading Camden Chat knows the O’s have a million holes to fill and a myriad of uncertainties to address before Opening Day. However, the bullpen, particularly the back end, largely isn’t one of them. Of course, a good back of the bullpen is irrelevant if the starters are terrible, but at least something is in order.
Given injuries, trades and surprise Spring Training performances (good or bad), nothing is ever set in stone. That said, as February gets rolling, let’s look at where things stand after Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, TBD, TBD, and TBD leave the game.
7-8-9: Brach, O’Day, Bleier, Givens
With Zach Britton on the shelf until June, there will likely be some late inning mix and matching, but it is a good bet that Brad Brach who had a solid enough 2017 will be the primary closer. Brach filled in capably last year in a similar situation and is also a free agent after 2018, so he’ll be motivated to show he can consistently close games.
Also in the end of game mix is Darren O’Day. Under team control for two more years, O’Day is looking for a bounce back season. Roch Kubatko of MASN talked to O’Day recently, with O’Day sounding confident for the coming season:
“Last year was encouraging in a lot of aspects. I think previous seasons I had some issues that just fighting through and there’s times where you doubt yourself, there’s times where you wonder if you’re still good, so last year some of the months were very encouraging for me and I felt like I got back to myself.”
Kubatko also noted that O’Day didn’t allow a run in 13 of his last 14 games. Impressive stuff that was lost amid the dismal September performance by the team as a whole. O’Day has shown previously that he can be an elite All-Star reliever. Hopefully he gets back to that level.
At Fan Fest two weekends ago, Buck Showalter mentioned lefty Richard Bleier several times, which indicates their big hopes for his continued strong performance. Bleier appeared in 57 games during 2017 with a 1.99 ERA over 63.1 innings. Originally drafted by the Texas Rangers, Bleier came to the O’s a year ago from the New York Yankees.
Showalter also talked up Mychal Givens as a pitcher whose stock is seriously rising. In 69 games during 2017, Givens posted a 2.75 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 78.2 innings pitched.
Givens is under team control for another four years, so expect to see him around Camden Yards for a while, especially since he’s been described as untouchable in trades for years. That could be because the Orioles have thoughts about making him the closer of the future when Britton and Brach become free agents after 2018.
Plenty of teams would like a bullpen anchored by Brach, O’Day, Bleier and Givens, with Britton coming back a few months into the season. O’s fans should feel good about that.
Middle: Hart, Yacabonis, Scott, Wright, Lee, Hess
Left-handed Donnie Hart wasn’t able to follow up on his 2016 success and was briefly banished to the minor leagues. He’ll have to fight to get a roster spot back. Right-handed Jimmy Yacabonis struggled greatly with command during his time with the big club last year and has minor league options remaining, so he’ll have to earn himself a spot
Tanner Scott – the Orioles 6th ranked prospect and second highest ranked pitcher – spent last season at Bowie with two games for the Orioles late last year. While he has been both a starter and reliever, Scott’s scouting report notes that his “upside as a late-inning reliever is undeniable.”
This is primarily due to his 100+ MPH fastball that is regularly in the high-90’s. Scott was also recently at the O’s pitching minicamp in Florida. Maybe one day he will be able to throw strikes.
Mike Wright, a 28-year-old right-hander whose 5.76 ERA, 25 innings pitched and 28 strikeouts in 2017, was not what the Orioles needed. Despite his never succeeding in the role at the MLB level, Wright could be a starter if they don’t find another one elsewhere. This is not an encouraging development.
Interestingly, with the current roster makeup, Wright is the third-most experienced MLB starter on the team behind Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Wright started a combined 29 games for the Birds in 2015 and 2016. He is completely out of minor league options, so he’ll have to make the roster or be put on waivers.
Lefty Chris Lee and righty David Hess will also be in the mix. Lee has yet to force himself into the big league picture, but hopes aren’t lost for him yet. The same is true of Hess, who was added to the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft. If they do well, they will probably find themselves in the mix as the season progresses as well.
Others: Castro, Cortes, Araujo, Mesa
Given the lack of starting pitchers currently in place for 2018, Miguel Castro likely will not be part of the bullpen and will be a starter instead, but time will tell. Castro started one game last year - the only start of his major league career - and is out of minor league options. If he’s able to follow up on his 2017 performance, it won’t matter about his options because the Orioles won’t want to send him down anyway.
Nestor Cortes – a Rule 5 pick in the most recent draft from the Yankees – ended last season in Triple-A and comes with good command. Notably, Cortes walked just 32 batters and struck out 105 in 104+ innings pitched across three levels last season. That included 13 starts out of 30 games.
Like Castro, the Orioles sound like they’re set to hand Cortes a rotation spot if nothing changes, like Dan Duquette actually signing a free agent starting pitcher who isn’t bad.
Pedro Araujo and Jose Mesa were also Rule 5 picks, but it is unlikely they’ll be in the big league mix this season. DD mentioned Mesa specifically at FanFest as a player for O’s fans to keep an eye on. On the other hand, he says a lot of things.
Under the tutelage of Roger McDowell – entering his second season as Baltimore’s pitching coach – here’s hoping the bullpen is a strength during 2018.
World Series odds
As a side note, writing this piece from Las Vegas, the sports books are another place where the Orioles aren’t getting much respect. Looking at odds to win the 2018 World Series, the Orioles are 80-1 and only the Marlins, Tigers, A’s, Braves, Reds and Padres are worse. Other American League East teams rank significantly better led by the Yankees (3-1) who have the best odds in all of MLB, Red Sox (8-1), Rays (30-1) and Blue Jays (40-1).