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Orioles positional preview: Bullpen

With young arms, potential trade pieces, and a chance for growth, the Orioles bullpen will be as interesting as any subset of the roster.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Workouts Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

When I was a kid, and even into high school, I had one dream. Just one.

To be a major league relief pitcher.

Theoretically, is there a better job in the world? On a good day, you’re sitting around for two hours watching a baseball game. When the phone rings it may not even be your your day to clock in. And when you are actually asked to pitch, you only throw an inning or so. Hell, maybe you even vulture a win after a pitch or two. As much as a professional athlete is allowed, there’s a lot of chilling, and no one basks in the art better than I.

Unfortunately, my dreams would be dashed in today’s world. As general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde are sure to implement, the Orioles will be taking to a more modern approach when allocating time to the pitching staff. That equates to a coveting of a lot of velocity and a lot of spin, both of which I did not have.

This new regime means the O’s will probably be using openers, especially with Alex Cobb expected to miss time. I can only imagine Buck Showalter gritting his teeth and clenching his fists in disgust at the proposition. The Orioles pitching strategy is also likely to be more informed as games move closer to their conclusion. Simply, any philosophy that advocates AGAINST Andrew Cashner facing a lineup three or four times has my full support.

While no one can dismiss Showalter’s gut to be anything but immaculate, the numbers would have told him to use Zach Britton at SOME point during the Wild Card game three years ago. Going forward, we can likely assume that a crunch-time decision such as the aforementioned will be made with a bit more enlightenment, as well as other managerial chess moves that require a bit more diligence.

However, we don’t really know what plans Elias and Hyde have for their personnel because there is no precedent. We do know that most of the presumed Orioles bullpen are capable of being effective for multiple innings, but we still don’t have a clue as to who places where on the hierarchy. What’s a preview without some predictions?

The Establishment

When it comes to the Orioles bullpen, there are only a handful of the 12 projected pitchers that come with any qualifications on their resumes. The most established of the establishment is Mychal Givens, who should be seen as the de facto closer.

Givens, the obvious candidate to replace Zach Britton after the latter was traded on July 25, recorded 46 outs in the 9th inning to end the 2018 season. In those 15.1 innings, Givens managed a 0.52 WHIP, the cause of a walk rate (3.6 percent) nearly three times smaller than his career mark of 9.1 percent. That is good.

The bad however is Givens’ strikeout numbers have marginally declined over the past four years. In 2015, the former second-round pick posted a 32.5 percent strikeout rate in his first 30 innings. In 2018, that number fell to 24.9 percent. Givens’ spring didn’t do much to cement the confidence of the new regime, but they are rightfully unconcerned with his early bouts of ineffectiveness. His fastball-slider-changeup arsenal will be heavily relied upon anyway.

Despite the industry asking for more velocity, Richard Bleier doesn’t need to answer any of those questions. It’s rather incredible that Bleier’s reputation in baseball has skyrocketed the way it has, but the manner of his success is easy to understand. He cuts his fastball, he sinks his fastball, he works the perimeter of the strike zone, and he keeps the ball on the ground.

Bleier is one of the few guys in baseball capable of maintaining his massive ERA-FIP discrepancy because he is good at what he does. Better yet, if he manages to stay healthy and continues to be good at what he does, he fits well as a potential summer trade candidate. He isn’t eligible for his first round of arbitration until this winter, he has the ability to effectively pitch multiple innings, and he’s left-handed. Though teams have been less likely to part with more coveted prospects, a general manager in need of an assured out-getter may be willing to gift the Orioles a more polished minor leaguer.

Either way, there’s no evidence to suggest Bleier won’t continue to be one of baseball’s underdogs, and get outs along the way.

The Long Men

Over the past two seasons, Miguel Castro has accrued 152.2 innings. The only Orioles reliever with more innings the past two seasons is Mychal Givens. Castro’s nature of being “good-not-great” has made him easy to overlook, but he’s durable, has back-end caliber stuff, and is amazingly only 24 years old.

There is a platform for his heavy fastball and sweeping slider to continue to develop, and I think he’s one of the few Orioles arms that shouldn’t be relegated to a defined role. Castro can be used as an opener, in middle innings, and if needed, late in ball games. If the Orioles do follow the path of the Astros and mix in more breaking balls, Castro’s slider could be a large beneficiary.

Nate Karns will likely be used as an opener until the Orioles can put his thoracic outlet syndrome concerns far enough in the rear view. Karns is only on a one-year deal, so the Orioles’ return may equal that of the little investment. Still, the once-reliable Karns could still be that for an Orioles team needing quality innings wherever they can find it. He gets a surprising amount of strikeouts for a guy that mainly relies on two pitches, and he does tend to manipulate a strong amount of ground balls. He’s not perfect but he’ll do some good things.

Maybe the most interesting Oriole in the bullpen is Jimmy Yacabonis. On the surface, Yacabonis looks like another guy destined to be on the Norfolk shuttle before an eventual designation for assignment. In just over 60 big league innings, Yacabonis has an ERA north of 5.00 and has only struck out 15 percent of the batters he’s faced. He’s been unextraordinary.

But the stuff, man. It’s good. It’s too good to be hit as hard it has, and it’s too good to be wasted by shoddy fastball command. I have a feeling the Orioles will focus on Yacabonis’ strike-throwing inefficiencies because if he can find the plate, the stuff will really start to show. His sinking fastball and two-plane breaking ball will be afforded a lot of opportunity, both early and in the middle of ballgames. His presence alone is an early test for the organization’s player development.

The Lefties Not Named Richard Bleier

I really like Paul Fry, and I think Orioles fans will find the same affection this season.

For a rookie pitching in his first 37.2 innings, Fry recorded a solid 3.35 ERA while managing an abnormally high 57 percent ground ball rate. Walks were a bit of an issue, but he has a sneaky fastball and a wipeout slider that are capable of getting a lot of outs. Righties only hit Fry for a .254 wOBA last season so we should expect that to even out, but Fry can get outs from both sides of the plate, and his stuff is built to screw with lefties. Don’t be surprised if Fry clings onto a role as a middle-inning reliever.

John Means is an Oriole draft pick that could very well be in Norfolk next month, or he could stroll along like he did in his four-plus minor league seasons. He’s a fastball-changeup-slider guy that had moments during springs training, and has been a trustworthy arm throughout the Orioles system. It’s hard to say what kind of role Means is meant for, but he throws strikes and keeps the baseball in the ballpark. His performance will determine the length of his stay.

The Other Guys

Pedro Araujo is only going to remain a piece of the bullpen for 17 days, after which he will be sent to Triple-A to continue his development. He doesn’t throw enough quality strikes for a guy with an average fastball and slider. His changeup is his best secondary pitch, but it hasn’t shown enough reliability because Araujo doesn’t throw strikes. That will have to change, or we’ll probably never see him again.

A lot of O’s fans were perplexed at the idea of sending Tanner Scott down to Triple-A, but he too hasn’t shown the ability to throw enough strikes. He’ll be in Baltimore when that problem has a solution.

Cody Carroll has a bazooka right arm, but like his compadres, he’s too wild around the plate. The staff in Norfolk will have an important job in getting him more consistent in the strike zone. He may very well be shuttled back and forth.

While he had a tough spring, just having Branden Kline around and pitching is a good thing. He’s got an upper-90’s fastball at a tough angle and a big-time slider. After Tommy John surgery and its lingering effects, he returned last season to strike out more batters and trim down walks. Kline will be in Baltimore at some point in 2019.