When a team finishes with the second-worst record in baseball there aren’t many positives to take away. The Orioles are no exception. They went 54-108 in 2019 and are set up to have a similarly miserable campaign in 2020. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t see some level of improvement on the field next summer.
There are opportunities for a leap forward up and down the roster. Austin Hays will upgrade the center field play from day one. With Richie Martin’s Rule 5 requirements fulfilled the shortstop position should see an upgrade. And the team may actually move on from Chris Davis. But the area of the team that may see the most improvement is the bullpen.
The 2019 Orioles had one of the worst relief corps in the league. The 654 innings they threw were the eighth most in MLB. In that time, they compiled a 5.79 ERA (30th out of 30 teams), 8,60 K/9 (28th), 4.06 BB/9 (23rd), 4.97 xFIP (28th) and 0.4 fWAR (28th). Not great.
Some of the “stand out” performers were Shawn Armstrong (0.7 fWAR, 5.21 xFIP over 54.1 innings), Richard Bleier (0.6 fWAR, 4.22 xFIP over 53.1 innings), Mychal Givens (0.5 fWAR, 3.62 xFIP over 63 innings) and Miguel Castro (0.4 fWAR, 4.85 xFIP over 73.1 innings).
This unit has already seen some turnover since the season ended. Gabriel Ynoa, who tossed 46.1 innings in relief and had a 5.05 ERA, elected free agency a few weeks ago. Jimmy Yacabonis (33.1 innings, 6.75 ERA) did the same. More changes could be on the horizon. Givens is frequently mentioned as a trade candidate. And the December 2nd non-tender deadline could result in a few other names being purged from rolls.
The point is that there are going to be a bunch of opportunities for younger players and players not currently in the Orioles organization to contribute in a relief role. For this group, that should mean an improvement from their current standard.
These could be the faces of an improved Orioles ‘pen:
Hunter Harvey is the player with the most potential to break out. The 24-year-old made his big league debut, looking downright filthy in the process. Over seven games he tossed 6.1 innings, struck out 11, walked four and allowed one run. However, he also experienced arm soreness and has a track record of injuries, so the O’s will likely be conservative in how they deploy him through 2020.
Tanner Scott possesses an 80-grade fastball from the left side. But he disappointed last season due, in part, to his 6.49 walks per nine innings. But he was also a bit unlucky with his massive 26.7% home run per fly ball rate and .400 batting average against on balls in play. His 3.93 xFIP is mush better than his 4.78, which indicates he could be more productive going forward.
Cody Carroll was part of the package the Orioles received in the Zach Britton deal. Like Harvey and Scott, Carroll flirts with triple-digit velocities. But he was unable to put it on display last season as he sat out with a back injury. The 27-year-old only has 15 games of big league experience, and has struggled to this point (17 innings, 17 runs allowed), but he too saw his walk rate skyrocket (6.88 BB/9). He will be one to watch in the spring.
Dillon Tate was also part of that Britton trade. The converted starter saw his performance in the minors take a turn for the better once he switched to the bullpen. That success did not follow him to his first shot at the bigs (21 innings, 6.43 ERA), but it’s nowhere near a big enough sample size to make a judgement just yet. Tate does not strike out many batters —maybe seven or eight per nine innings— so he needs to be precise. Lowering his 3.86 BB/9 rate should be his top objective.
Branden Kline has a nice story. He is local guy (Frederick) that has overcome tons of injuries and finally made it to big leagues after parts of eight seasons in the minors. It’s only fitting for Kline that he struggled out of the gate with a 5.93 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in his first 41 innings as a big leaguer. His “stuff” is better than what he showed in 2019. He will get plenty of opportunities to prove he can improve.
Two other names that deserve a mention here are Dean Kremer and Keegan Akin. They have a lot in common. They are both minor leaguers. Each of them was just added to the 40-man roster last week. And neither of them are relievers. It is unlikely that either of them breaks campaign with the big league team, but it would surprise no one to see them make their way to Baltimore at some point in 2020. It is possible that, in an effort to ease them in, they appear in a relief capacity.
There is still an entire offseason ahead of the Orioles, and they will almost certainly add a few arms before the spring, but if the relief group is going to rebound from a tough 2019 season then the names mentioned here will be the ones to lead the charge.