Say what you will about the starting staffs, but the bullpen has rarely been a liability under Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter. In fact, the Orioles’ team bullpen hasn’t finished with an ERA ranking worse than sixth in the AL since 2012. Through a mix of homegrown talent and slick trades and acquisitions by the front office, the Orioles have continued to assemble fairly dominant bullpens over the last six seasons and 2018 looks to be no exception.
This year, the Orioles have a handful of new names vying for some of the unclaimed spots in the team’s bullpen. After Brach, Givens, O’Day, and Bleier, the Orioles will most likely have three more spots to fill as we head towards the Opening Day roster. While the Rule 5 picks and the out-of-options Mike Wright may have a slight inside path, Joely Rodriguez is a name to watch going forward.
A little background
After being DFA’ed by the Philadelphia Phillies back in November, the Orioles acquired the 26-year-old lefty in exchange for the common return of a player to be named later or cash considerations. It was a minor league deal right below any major headlines and right in the wheelhouse of Dan Duquette. After finding successful bullpen arms like O’Day, Brach, Castro, and Bleier in similar, minor acquisitions, Dan Duquette and Orioles fans alike are hoping for another diamond in the rough.
Rodriguez originally signed with the Pirates back in 2009 as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. After a few years as a starter in the low minors with mixed results, Joely put himself on the map with a 2013 campaign in which he threw 140 innings with an ERA of only 2.70 in Class A ball. Even Fangraphs took notice, dubbing him, “a pitcher with a plus moving fastball, a solid-average changeup, and an average slider, all with above-average control and groundball ability” back in 2013.
Unfortunately, Rodriguez never put it together to crack the Pirates’ rotation like Fangraphs predicted, and Joely was dealt to the Phillies before the 2015 season where he struggled mightily. Despite flaming out as a starter, the Phillies moved him to the bullpen towards the end of the year and his luck started to change, at least for a year.
In 2016, Rodriguez was suddenly a dominant reliever in the minors with career-high strikeout numbers a career-low ERA of only 2.35 over 53 appearances. He earned himself a September call-up to the majors and continued his stellar performance, allowing three earned runs between nine and two thirds innings across 12 appearances. This is the Joely Rodriguez the Orioles are hoping they can get. His 2017 season was bad, there’s no way around it, but there is a big league pitcher in there if he can get back to his 2016 form.
Buck Showalter summed it up nicely the other day when he said regarding Joely, “A lot of times, you kind of try to take out any negatives in their track records and go, ‘OK.’ You try a fresh start with all of them.” Forget 2017, the Orioles know somewhere in there Rodriguez has the ability to be a contributor in a major league bullpen.
A fit in the Orioles’ pen?
Rodriguez’s scouting report touts him as a hard-throwing lefty with plus movement; and while that sounds like an asset in any bullpen, it does present an intriguing option that the Orioles currently do not possess. Richard Bleier is a soft tosser, as is Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes, and Donnie Hart is a side-arm guy. Outside of Tanner Scott, there’s not really another hard-throwing lefty in the competition.
With the Orioles looking at the very real possibility of five right-handers in the rotation, it makes sense to get as many lefties in the bullpen as possible. And so far in Spring Training, Joely Rodriguez has yet to do anything to suggest he shouldn’t have one of the remaining spots.
It’s been only three scoreless innings so far, but people are starting to take notice. Roch Kubatko with MASN has been calling Rodriguez his darkhouse pick to make the Opening Day since his first impressions in camp.
Joely Rodriguez pumping 95 mph fastballs. Also has a nasty slider. My darkhorse pick to make the team. Had to choose 1. He's it #orioles— Roch Kubatko (@masnRoch) February 23, 2018
Keep an eye on his stat lines going forward, because the opportunity is there for a hard-throwing southpaw to carve out a niche in the 2018 Orioles bullpen. If he can keep up his performance thus far over the next three weeks, I think Rodriguez may present himself to be a legitimate option this season.
Hopefully the Orioles can provide the fresh start that Joely Rodriguez needs to get back to his 2016 form. Duquette has certainly reclaimed bullpen pieces from similar situations before. Let’s all hope he’s found yet another bullpen arm seemingly out of nowhere.