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The Orioles bullpen has failed to meet even modest expectations early on

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Almost two weeks through the 2019 season, the Orioles’ bullpen ranks last or near the bottom of the league in several major statistical categories.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles bullpen lost some major pieces last summer during the roster purge; players like Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Brad Brach. And there were no significant additions during the offseason, like the rest of the O’s roster. So there was reason to expect a significant drop-off in this facet of the team. But what has happened so far in 2019 has still been shockingly below par.

In recent years past, the O’s bullpen usually started out doing well, and then slowly became exposed as the season wore on and appearances mounted. So it’s not uncommon for the Orioles to have a heavily utilized pen, but for it to be this bad this early is jarring.

Through 12 games, the Baltimore bullpen has the worst ERA in the majors at 7.88. They also have the worst BAA (.317), the fourth most walks allowed (29) and the second most innings pitched (56), behind only the Oakland Athletics. The O’s bullpen has allowed the most home runs in the league too (19), and by a wide margin. The next closest bullpen, that of the Diamondbacks, has allowed 11.

A lot of the relief inefficiency has to do with being overworked. Collectively, O’s starters have only pitched 50 innings in 12 games, which is ahead of only the Cubs (48.1) for fewest innings by a starting staff in 2019. And a bullpen, with no clearly defined roles, is left to pick up the slack.

Not only do the O’s choose to go with the closer-by-committee approach, but as an extension, they also do not have a regular set-up guy(s). Whether by necessity or not, it seems like every reliever is a long man with this particular staff, expected to go multiple innings at any point in a game in order to rescue a starter and make ends meet. Case in point, Mychal Givens threw a staggering 49 pitches over 1.2 innings in the Orioles’ third game of the season against the Yankees in the Bronx.

Less than two weeks into the season, and the Birds have already yo-yoed a couple young pitchers between the minors and majors. Granted, most of the criticism about this practice last year with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter was about sending down guys who did well. That was not the case recently with relievers Josh Rogers and Matt Wotherspoon, who each lasted one game in the O’s pen before being optioned back to Norfolk. In their lone appearances, Wotherspoon allowed three runs in two innings and Rogers allowed five runs in 3.2 innings.

Richard Bleier, a familiar returning face, had been a revelation the past two years for the O’s. In 88 games from 2017-2018, Bleier was 5-1 with a 1.97 ERA and 1.19 WHIP out of the pen. But he hasn’t looked the same so far this season in his return from lat surgery, having allowed seven runs in 4.1 innings with a 2.08 WHIP. There’s even been recent discussion about putting him on the injured list.

Mychal Givens also had high expectations coming into the year, but he has under-performed early on as well. He’s got a 5.79 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in 4.2 innings, and although four different relievers on the roster have a save, Givens is not one of them.

Miguel Castro, who is still only 24 years old, has shown flashes of potential the past couple years, putting up a 3.53 ERA in 39 games in 2017 and a 3.96 ERA in 63 games last year. And unlike last spring, he wasn’t stretched out in an attempt to make him a starter. He was left to focus solely on relieving. So far this year, Castro has an 11.57 ERA in seven relief innings with a 1.86 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .333 against him.

The enigma that is Mike Wright has also struggled mightily this year. He’s got a 12.79 ERA in 6.1 innings with a 2.68 WHIP and .414 BAA.

But along with the bad, there is some good to point out. Left-hander Paul Fry has a 1.59 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in four appearances. Jimmy Yacabonis has a 2.45 ERA in 7.1 innings, although his WHIP stands at 1.64. Also, reliever/starter John Means has a 2.08 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 8.2 innings through four appearances, including one start.

All of this inconsistency makes you wonder if more structure would be beneficial to these guys in the pen — clearly defined roles, responsibility and expectations. If ballplayers are truly creatures of habit like they say, why not give them routine to get used to and see what happens? Also, the starters need to start going deeper into games. That wouldn’t hurt either.