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The Orioles bullpen has had a rough patch so far, but don’t give up on them yet

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The bullpen has been an Orioles strength for the past several seasons. It hasn’t worked out that way every time so far this year. Things could get better.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers
Darren O’Day pitching on Wednesday April 18th, where he allowed a 3-run homer.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back to happier times, before this season started, there was already plenty to worry about regarding the 2018 Orioles team. However, the bullpen generated little cause for concern. Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Darren O’Day were all expected to be good, and Miguel Castro and Richard Bleier both looked poised to build on an impressive 2017.

The bullpen is not the biggest issue on this team right now, but an ERA of 5.60 heading into Friday’s game has contributed to the team’s struggles at times. Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes Jr., since returned to the Yankees, has not been the only contributor to those problems.

To break down the ‘pen:

Bleier is the lone contributor to meet expectations. In fact, having begun his season with an ERA of 0.61 and team-leading 0.95 WHIP, he exceeds both his 2017 numbers and the most optimistic expectations anyone could have had for him. Bleier’s role may even be increasing, seen in his pitching the seventh and the eighth on Friday.

After a tough spring, Miguel Castro is pitching pretty well. Spring numbers don’t matter. For another reminder of this from the Orioles, look at Dylan Bundy, and elsewhere in baseball, Shohei Ohtani.

Mychal Givens has never faced extended struggles since he joined the MLB team in 2015. He has been a very good reliever for the past few years, and it is worrying how poorly he has pitched so far. While Givens is still striking out batters at his typical pace, his walk rate has nearly doubled. This has helped lead to an ERA currently almost four runs above his career rate. Givens needs to quickly get back to his usual self, and there doesn’t appear to be a reason that can’t occur.

Nothing has happened to Givens that would throw doubt to the hope that he will return to dominance in time. There is nothing like Chris Tillman’s shoulder injury, for example, to lead to a belief that Givens is permanently diminished. At only 27 there should be little doubt that he will eventually regain his form, but it would be sure be helpful if that was sooner rather than later.

In the case of Darren O’Day, Friday night was certainly encouraging! He still had a hit batsman, which adds to his trend of inconsistent command this year, but that was his only runner allowed as he picked up the save. Hopefully, it’s a sign that a couple of problem outings in April are mostly behind him.

It was interesting that O’Day received the Friday save chance, with Brad Brach not having pitched since Tuesday. Knowing that Brach is coming on to close out the game does not exactly put my mind at ease. He doesn’t really deserve this reaction based on a season ERA of 2.35, but he showed last season after Zach Britton’s injury that he can run into problems as the closer that he doesn’t in earlier innings.

There was more good Orioles bullpen news on Friday. Britton is progressing well, with manager Buck Showalter telling reporters Friday that Britton could be back “shortly after” he is eligible to return on May 28. This will push Brach back to where he looks more comfortable, and leave more wiggle room for if O’Day or Givens remain ineffective.

That takes care of the back end of the bullpen. There will still be some filler innings from Mike Wright and the other Rule 5 pick, Pedro Araujo, who has pitched some key spots so far, even if they haven’t all gone well, leading to an early 5.73 ERA.

It’s worth remembering that Araujo entered the season with little experience above A-ball, and isn’t, and shouldn’t be expected to be, a polished major league reliever yet. He can get outs when his control is good, and has exciting potential. He is interesting to watch, and could be a valuable bullpen contributor in years to come.

Wright does not come along with so much potential, either as a reliever or as a starter. He might still be better than Tillman, which isn’t saying much. Unless the team is planning to put Wright in the rotation in Tillman’s spot, the Orioles need give up on the Wright project.

Of course, in that case, Wright will go win a Cy Young somewhere else, but it will not happen here. He has been given a lot of chances in Baltimore and has not impressed. At 28, he is who he is.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I still have hope that this season will improve. Playoff contention is a bit more of a dream, so the team shouldn’t be shy about evaluating Araujo or other potential future pieces like Donnie Hart, Tanner Scott, and others when possible.

By my count, six of the Orioles losses came after holding a tie or lead into the 6th inning, with four of those held into the 7th. The bullpen really matters! With a starting rotation that probably won’t be going too deep into most games, it’s even more important. Flip those six games, and the Orioles are suddenly in a much better position. With improvement from key relievers who have been good in the past, the O’s shouldn’t be blowing as many games like that from here on.