Within the last week, the Orioles have traded away two pitchers who were once mainstays in a vaunted bullpen. First, Zach Britton was dealt to the Yankees in exchange for three prospects on Tuesday. He was followed out the door by Brad Brach, who was sent to the Braves in a swap for international signing bonus money on Sunday. In both cases, the return was underwhelming considering how good the pair of pitchers had been when at their best in Baltimore. But given that both were approaching free agency, it wasn’t completely unexpected.
For many years, the Orioles have had several glaring weaknesses as a team. Their ability to develop effective relievers is not one of them, and it’s something they should look to continue and lean on heavily in their rebuild.
The value of reliable, sometimes dominant, relief pitchers reached an all-time high a few years ago. Aroldis Chapman was sent from the Bronx to the north side of Chicago in a blockbuster deal that netted the Bombers infielder Gleyber Torres. Andrew Miller signed a huge money deal with the Yankees prior to the 2015 season just to be their set up man. Then he was jettisoned to Cleveland for four players, including two big prospects, Justus Sheffield and Clint Frazier.
Since then, the mania around specific bullpen pieces has died down, but clubs are still willing to pay a premium for the right arms. It was on display this month when the San Diego Padres shipped out Brad Hand and Adam Cimber to the Indians in an agreement that landed them one of the top prospects in baseball, catcher Francisco Mejia.
The Orioles are doing everything to make it clear that they are serious about this organizational rebuild. Expiring contracts are being taken off the books. International bonus slot money is coming rather than going. They are even taking calls on players under team control beyond 2018. All of these things will benefit Baltimore’s future.
However, this is a process that will take several years to complete. The trades of expiring contracts will provide depth in the minor league ranks, but it appears no stars are on the horizon. Potential deals involving players with longer contracts and signing international free agents could give the O’s a few of the lottery tickets that their system lacks. If everything breaks right, those things alone may be enough to return the franchise to playoff contention.
But if the organization wants to increase their chances at making this into a success story and creating a repeatable process, there needs to be more than an irregular flow of talent to Baltimore that produces winning teams for a handful of years every so often. There needs to be a pipeline of players reaching the major league level that the Orioles can then use to turn into more prospects and so on.
This has been an issue for the Orioles. Whether because of inadequate scouting or poor development, Manny Machado was the first true star that the O’s farm system had produced in quite some time. The club has struggled to bring promising everyday position players and starting pitchers to fruition from the low minors all the way up to the big league level. Perhaps the recent shift in philosophy will change this as well, but that remains to be seen. One area of the franchise that seems to be working just fine, however, is their ability, especially recently, to turn fringe pitchers into valuable bullpen studs.
Darren O’Day was a waiver claim in 2011. Now he owns a 2.40 ERA/3.33 FIP in seven years with the O’s. Brach came to town in a 2013 trade for a low level minor league prospect. He’s had his issues this year, but made an All-Star team in 2016 and owns a 140 ERA+ over 327.2 innings in Baltimore. Richard Bleier was acquired in a throw away trade with the Yankees and had a shot at earning a ticket to the Mid-Summer Classic this year before an injury ended his season. Mychal Givens is a converted shortstop that is now coveted around the league for his game on the mound. The list goes on. Baltimore knows how to create relievers.
There is evidence to suggest that this avenue is still frothing with potential for the Orioles. Mike Wright Jr. has suddenly become un-hittable as a reliever after a failed attempt to start. Tanner Scott is left-handed and throws in the upper 90s. Paul Fry has seen some early success. There are theories that David Hess or Jimmy Yacabonis may thrive in a bullpen role. Then there are the recent minor league additions like Dillon Tate, Zach Pop and Cody Carroll that some see as above-average relievers in the big leagues one day. And that doesn’t even include guys that Dan Duquette may pluck off of the scrap heap during the winter if given the chance.
Relief pitchers are fickle. Many of them don’t pan out. Those that do succeed tend to flame out after a year or two. That is why no team is ever truly satisfied with their bullpen depth. New York may have the best relief corps ever. They didn’t have a need for Britton, but they added him anyway because his presence helps to shorten the game during an era where starting pitchers are, on the whole, being asked to face fewer batters. It has become an arms race to see who can best fortify the late innings. The Orioles won’t be a playoff team again for a few years, but that doesn’t mean they can’t profit from this trend.
The adjustment that the Orioles need to make is how long they hold onto these valuable relievers. Years of control play a huge role in trades. Use Wright Jr. as an example. Say he continues on in his current form for the remainder of 2018 and into 2019. He can’t become a free agent until the end of the 2022 season. But that doesn’t mean the O’s should hold onto him until the 2022 deadline or even the offseason prior to 2022. They should start fielding offers two or three years before he hits free agency.
The added years of team control increase his value and therefore the return. Reliable relievers are nice, but future starting position players are better, especially if you are confident in your club’s ability to create another lockdown pitcher for the late innings.
Competitive teams stay competitive year after year because they develop a system that gives them surplus talent in an area where other clubs struggle. The Dodgers are good at developing outfielders, which made Yusniel Diaz available in the Machado deal. The Yankees are comfortable in finding young pitchers, easing the burden of parting with Tate to land Britton. If the Orioles become a bullpen factory it could do wonders in transforming the organization from occasional contenders to perennial powerhouse.