First thing’s first, let’s get something out of the way. A strong bullpen can’t win a team many games on its own. Any successful team needs at least average starting pitching and an offense that can produce runs. This Orioles team would not be saved by a stronger performance from the closer, or contending with better middle-relief. But Baltimore has seen several players regress this year out of the bullpen.
During the Orioles most recent window of winning, the bullpen was highly respected throughout the league. In fact, their relievers were often lauded for offsetting a relatively mundane starting rotation. The Orioles possessed a championship-quality bullpen in 2014, with Andrew Miller, Zach Britton and Darren O’Day all posting sub-two ERA’s. Unfortunately for this year’s club, Andrew Miller is on the DL in Cleveland, and Britton and O’Day have battled injuries and regression.
Let’s take a quick look at the backend of Baltimore’s bullpen. While there haven’t been a ton of wins to close out, every key reliever for the Birds has had a below average year so far.
This one is tricky, because Britton’s main obstacle has been his health. The closer did not pitch for Baltimore until June 12th due to a ruptured achilles, and the Orioles fate had been sealed long before that. The two-time All Star and former Cy Young candidate slowly transformed from the keystone of the Orioles bullpen, to an afterthought in only a couple of years.
Britton has pitched in seven games since returning from the disabled list, and has looked inconsistent so far on the mound. He walked three in his 2018 debut, but did not surrender an earned run in his first four appearances. His ERA ballooned after being shelled to the tune of four runs in the Orioles rollercoaster victory in Atlanta on June 22nd, and it currently sits at 5.40 through 6.2 innings.
There’s no need to compare Britton’s small sample size to years past, but it’s always worth pointing out that he converted all 47 save opportunities with a 0.54 ERA in 2016. That Britton may be long gone, but he still has an opportunity to reestablish himself before the trade deadline. While Britton has downplayed the notion that he’s auditioning for other teams in an Orioles uniform, everyone in the organization knows that the Orioles must trade Britton at the end of July if there’s anything to gain.
Deemed the closer after another Britton injury, Brach has put in an inconsistent performance of his own this season. He’s converted 10-of-12 save opportunities this year, but also holds an 0-2 record out of the bullpen. At 3.86, his ERA is far too high for a closer, and .8 runs higher than his career average.
Brach’s best year came in 2016, when he posted a 2.05 ERA. He also won 10 games that year, a feat that seems nearly out of the question for any Oriole in 2018, and was named an American League All Star. Again, Brach was not expected to duplicate that performance this season. But as another free-agent-to-be, the Orioles hoped to gain some value for a back-end reliever at the trade deadline. If the Birds still desire a decent return, Brach will need to improve before the end of July.
A long time fan favorite, O’Day has been with the club since 2012. O’Day’s submarine form, endearing mustache and comical demeanor have helped him win over the Baltimore fans, but his sub-2 ERA’s in 2014 and 2015 had a lot to do with it. However, he has not asserted the same level of dominance after signing a four-year, $31 million deal before the 2016 season.
O’Day’s 2.70 ERA in 2018 is only slightly above his 2.53 career average. However, he’s only appeared in 19 games after suffering a strained hamstring earlier this season. If Britton and Brach are dealt, O’Day could be forced to anchor a young group of pitchers for the remainder of the season. O’Day could always be traded himself, but his pricy contract makes that highly unlikely.
Adding to that doubt, O’Day suffered another hamstring injury in Tuesday night’s loss to Seattle. The side-winder aggravated his hamstring attempting to field a bunt in the eighth inning. O’Day said after the game that the bunt caught him off guard, and the Orioles have already transferred him to the 10-day DL.
Givens decline may be the most disappointing for Orioles fans. While Britton and Brach appeared to be on their way out of Baltimore, Givens had been labeled a potential closer-in-the-making. The 28-year-old impressed in his first three seasons in Baltimore, sandwiching a 3.13 ERA between 2.75 ERA in 2017 and a 1.80 ERA in his first year.
Once a second-round draft choice as a shortstop, Givens represented a clear success story in being converted to a pitcher. However, he currently holds a 4.02 ERA and an 0-4 record in 2018. While the Orioles are looking for a quick turn around from Britton and Brach for trade value, the club hopes Givens can get back on track and produce in years to come. Givens will be arbitration eligible in 2019 and a free agent in 2022.
The Orioles no longer possess the shutdown bullpen that made them contenders in the first half of the decade, but a few of those relievers can still help the club. Tanner Scott and Miguel Castro, along with a few prospects, still provide hope for the future, and a potential rebound from O’Day and Givens would go along way. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on Britton and Brach to turn things around before the trade deadline. Fortunately, they’ve showed an ability to perform under pressure in the past.