Like the rest of the roster this year, the Orioles bullpen is short on experience. That includes the closer role, especially. Going back a couple years to when he was healthy, Zack Britton spoiled O’s fans as one of the best, if not the best, closers in the game.
In three full seasons from 2014-2016, Britton rang up 120 saves with a 1.38 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 9.3 SO/9 in 209 innings pitched. Britton was solid in 2017 when he did pitch, earning 15 saves with a 2.89 ERA, but was limited due to nagging injuries.
Brad Brach served in the closer role during the first portion of last season while Britton was recovering from offseason achilles surgery. In 42 games with the O’s before being traded to the Atlanta Braves, Brach had 11 saves in 13 opportunities with a 4.85 ERA.
In only 16 games with the Orioles last year, Britton managed four saves in five opportunities, compiling a 3.45 ERA in the process. Then he was shipped off to the Yankees. That’s when Mychal Givens took over.
Givens managed nine saves in 13 opportunities, pitching to a 3.99 ERA overall. And the potential for more is there. Givens is a converted shortstop who comes in with a deceptive delivery, somewhere between three-quarters and side-arm, while flashing mid-to-high 90s heat and wicked movement on his pitches.
In a young Orioles bullpen with few sure things in 2019, Givens stands out as the most obvious candidate to close. He even has some experience in the minors in that role, converting 21 out of 25 save opportunities over three minor league seasons.
There are a lot of open spots in the bullpen that will be filled depending on spring competition, but based off last year there are a few guys with at least a leg up on the competition in terms of making the club as relievers.
Richard Bleier is one such case, although he is coming off lat surgery and the Orioles seem content to ease him back into action. In his past two seasons in an Orioles uniform, Bleier has exceeded all expectations, putting up a 1.97 ERA in 96 innings to go along with a 1.19 WHIP. But he has very little career closing experience — over the course of 10 minor league seasons, Bleier accumulated eight saves in 16 chances.
Left-hander Tanner Scott has an electric arm but continues to struggle with control at the major league level. In 53.1 innings with the O’s last year he had a 5.40 ERA. Scott didn’t get much experience closing while in the minors, only earning seven out of 12 saves over the course of five seasons.
Youngster Cody Carroll has some minor league experience closing (22 saves in 32 chances), but he struggled to the tune of a 9.00 ERA in limited big league action last year. Other guys like Jimmy Yacabonis, Mike Wright and Miguel Castro profile more in the long reliever role than anything else.
Closers aren’t necessarily a dime a dozen, but they can be discovered in unexpected places. As many people say, the ninth inning is just a different animal than the rest of the game, and it takes a special mindset to thrive there.
Sometimes the best closers are converted starters who didn’t excel in their original role, for whatever reason, but who dominated when given the chance to show their stuff in single inning bursts at the end of games. Zack Britton is one such example of a former starter turned dominant closer.
One darkhorse candidate for the Orioles’ closer role this year is minor leaguer Branden Kline, who has impressed so far in early spring training game action. Kline’s career so far has been slowed by injuries, but in 44 games split between Frederick and Bowie last year, he had 17 saves in 18 chances and a 1.64 ERA. It’s unclear whether he will break camp with the Orioles or appear during the summer, but he is likely to earn a call to the show sometime this year.
There’s a decent chance that whoever establishes themselves as the new Orioles closer this year won’t even be on the next competitive O’s team. That includes Mychal Givens, who could bring back some attractive pieces in a trade if he is able to establish himself as a capable closer the first half of the season. That being said, the Orioles have plenty of time to identify and acquire potential ninth inning candidates who will mature in time to close for the next competitive O’s team.